The Webb Telescope turns its gaze to Saturn’s mysterious moon Titan

The Webb Telescope turns its gaze to Saturn’s mysterious moon Titan

Two images of Titan that reveal details of its atmosphere and surface.

The Webb Space Telescope captured images of Saturn’s moon Titan last month, which have now been released for our viewing pleasure. The images offer a detailed new look at Titan’s atmospheric composition and even the elements of its strange surface.

The telescope’s NIRCam instrument, which records in the near-infrared range, captured the views. They show clouds in Titan’s atmosphere (the whimsical names A and B in the annotated images), but also a blurry view of Kraken Mare, thought to be a methane sea, as well as dark sand dunes.

More data from Titan is expected from Webb’s instruments—including NIRSpec, which can estimate the planet’s chemical composition, such as it already has with distant exoplanets– in May or June 2023.

Titan is about 50% wider than Earth’s Moon. It is the only moon in the solar system with a significant atmosphere (dominated by nitrogen) and the only place next to Earth known to have rivers, lakes and seas.

While many of these liquid bodies are hydrocarbons—think entire oceans of methane—scientists believe that oceans of water may lie beneath the moon’s icy surface. This makes Titan an alien environment that holds promise for the search for life beyond Earth.

Future data will also be taken by MIRI, Webb’s mid-infrared instrument. MIRI will reveal more of Titan’s spectrum; images from the instrument are notable for their starbursts of color, which the Webb team calls “skittles” in the sky.

Titan’s makeup is so exciting and so enigmatic that NASA plans to send a probe there in the mid-2030s. The 3-meter Dragonfly rotorcraft will travel a billion miles to the moon. It will search for biosignatures and measure Titan’s chemical composition using a suite of 11 instruments.

It won’t be the first time humans have put a spacecraft on Titan. In 2005, the Huygens probe landed on the surface and evenly took a picture before dark. It offers an astonishingly limited view of this distant and alien world.

More: Final images from Doomed Space Probes

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