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Titan's Smooth Surface Baffles Scientists 319

Posted by michael
from the that's-no-moon! dept.
JazMuadDib writes "Scientists expected a few rough spots when their space drone snapped close-range images of Titan, Saturn's largest moon. Instead, the planetlike moon appears to have a bizarre, mysteriously smooth surface, and Tuesday's images have left them in a state of wonder. Read more at the Tucson Citizen." NASA's Cassini pages have a wide assortment of images and analysis. Cassini's data has already thrown scientists for loop.
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Titan's Smooth Surface Baffles Scientists

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 28, 2004 @07:32PM (#10658845)
    An earlier collision with the comet Botox.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 28, 2004 @07:36PM (#10658883)
    than after months of anticipation, hard work, and millions of dollars to get to the moment of revealation where the mysterious coverings are peeled off, and my objective is laid bare, completely smooth, and ready for exploration.
  • by Dancin_Santa (265275) <DancinSanta@gmail.com> on Thursday October 28, 2004 @07:36PM (#10658885) Journal
    The surface has no shadow detail, so it is impossible to determine whether peaks and valleys exist on the ground.

    Here's the quote: Because of the global haze layer, Porco says, "we do not see shadows on the surface of Titan. And because we don't see shadow, we can't look at an image and immediately deduce what's up and what's down." There could be massive mountains and deep valleys there, or the surface could be completely flat. At this point, there's no way to tell.

    Also, the interesting thing about Titan is that the cloud cover which should be methane seems to be composed of something else, altogether. Particles such as ethane and even polystyrene have been suggested as possible cloud particles. But until further investigation, it only seems to be that our initial theories of methane clouds were off the mark.
  • "Instead, the planetlike moon appears to have a bizarre, mysteriously smooth surface"

    That's no moon, it's a space station!
  • Mysteriously smooth? Could it be a bowling ball?
  • Excellent news!! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 28, 2004 @07:40PM (#10658910)
    "WTF??" is where great science starts.
    • More great dicoveries start with someone saying "hmmm, that's odd." than with someone shouting "Eureka!!!".
    • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 28, 2004 @07:58PM (#10659043)
      "OMFG!" as a close second, and "Hey, what's growing on my sandwich?" a distinct third.
    • Is it just me... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by boomgopher (627124) on Thursday October 28, 2004 @08:37PM (#10659264) Journal
      Is it just me, or is everyone noticing that each and every time we get new data on bodies in our solar system, scientists are "shocked", "mystified", "befuddled", etc. by the data? What exactly were they convinced of and proven wrong, after all the Ios, Encledaeus, et al surprises out there?

      • by Jarvo (70205) on Thursday October 28, 2004 @09:18PM (#10659489)
        If we were to read reports about assumptions that were correct, it just wouldn't be interesting.

        It would be like saying, "Yep, Mars is made of red rock and dust." That's not news, it's olds [digiserve.com]. There are probably heaps of discoveries that aren't brought to our attention because they fit the commonly held assumptions.

        The discovery of Titan's flat surface is like the trailer to a movie. It leaves you wanting to know more, wanting to know why. It captures your interest, and so it's considered 'news'.

        Although its good (for the type of people that read Slashdot) to know that theories are proven correct, it's just not interesting to the wider populace.

      • by Tony-A (29931)
        scientists are "shocked", "mystified", "befuddled", etc. by the data

        This is not a statement about the nature of scientists.
        This is a statement about the media and its journalistic integrity or more accurately the lack thereof.
        After many months or years of preparations the scientists do not have ready sound bites for the shocked, mystified and befuddled journalists who in turn project their own inadequacies on the scientists.

      • Re:Is it just me... (Score:4, Interesting)

        by CreatureComfort (741652) * on Friday October 29, 2004 @09:22AM (#10662302)

        From the article:
        But, according to data gathered by Cassini, the particles that make up the cloud are too big to be methane.


        "I don't believe it," says Chris McKay, a planetary scientist with the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. "What else can they be? It would be like flying over Earth and saying the clouds are not water. If those clouds are really not methane, then a lot of the things we think about Titan are wrong. A lot of things we think about those clouds are wrong - the whole explanation of why they're there."

        Had the clouds been found to be methane, it wouldn't have made the news. I'm sure there are hundreds of things that have been noticed so far that do fit the theories and the scientists just shrug and make another check mark on the clipboard.

  • by Konowl (223655) on Thursday October 28, 2004 @07:40PM (#10658913)
    There could be massive mountains and deep valleys there, or the surface could be completely flat. At this point, there's no way to tell.

    Am I missing something? The title of the slashdot entry discusses the smooth surface, but I RTFA, and scientists don't KNOW... period?
  • Sensationalism (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 28, 2004 @07:41PM (#10658921)
    RTFA! The article doesnt say the surface is smooth .. they say they cant make out the surface's topography because the thick haze diffuses the light and prevents shadows from being formed preventing the discernment of topography .. There are as yet no conclusions about how rough or smooth the surface is. Please don't overhype this stuff.

    If the Huygens mission is successful we'll know more .. hopefully.
    • What hype? The article summary was wrong, that's all. I assure you, I am not jumping up and down because of the existence of a perfectly smooth ball in orbit of Saturn...
    • by Billy the Mountain (225541) on Thursday October 28, 2004 @07:59PM (#10659053) Journal
      You know, I kept telling them that they would later regret having made that translucent plastic lens cap. But did they listen to me? Noooo! "You're just a programmer", they said. "Shut up and write code", they said.

      BTM
  • They didn't quite say it was smooth: they said that they can't see the topography.

    Because of the global haze layer, Porco says, "we do not see shadows on the surface of Titan. And because we don't see shadow, we can't look at an image and immediately deduce what's up and what's down." There could be massive mountains and deep valleys there, or the surface could be completely flat. At this point, there's no way to tell.

    The article also says that future flybys will give them radar and other data which w

    • I propose we rename Titan to Solaris.
    • In other news, yesterday a high energy beam from a mysterious spacecraft impinged on -- and disintegrated -- Titan's Hoarfrost district. The energetic photons swept without warning across a long swath of the oldest residential and commercial district on Titan, causing the ancient complex of slowly-grown crystalline towers and bridges to explode and collapse into dust. The area has been flattened. The unknown source of the destructive beam seems to have left the vicinity of Titan, at least for the present.
    • by ChrisCampbell47 (181542) on Thursday October 28, 2004 @10:58PM (#10659915)
      Aaargh, I'm going to blow modding a thread to respond to this post ...

      Many people are confusing two separate issues here: visual imaging and radar topography. On this one pass, and on each of the other passes, Cassini will get A) visual image data on large parts of Titan's surface and B) radar topography on a SMALL PART. The radar sequence is very short -- they just get a little strip of radar data at closest approach and then that's it for that pass.

      OVER MONTHS AND YEARS, they will gather enough to put it together and form a complete body of INTEGRATED visual and topographic data, and then we'll get the cool flyover renderings that make us all wet our pants.

      But for now they have lots of visual data, which they CAN NOT use for determining topographic details due to the lack of shadowing, and a tiny bit of radar which they CAN.

  • At last (Score:5, Interesting)

    by The Bungi (221687) <thebungi@gmail.com> on Thursday October 28, 2004 @07:45PM (#10658953) Homepage
    I remember reading Carl Sagan's Cosmos and thinking (as he did) that Titan was the most interesting body in the Solar System outside of the Earth (sorry, I'm a terran chauvinist).

    It's amazing that we've had to wait more than 20 years since he wrote that to get 700 miles from Titan, and it's mind-boggling that we're actually going to drop a probe in there.

    It's just a shame that he's not around to see it.

  • by oni (41625) on Thursday October 28, 2004 @07:46PM (#10658955) Homepage
    Just to put the Cassini mission into perspective, no human being in the history of our species has ever seen the surface of Titan. No one, in the hundreds of thousands of years that we've been around, has been able to know what we are about to know.

    Sure, this sort of thing has happened before - there was the first (and last) picture from the surface Venus, the first image of the far side of the moon, etc. I hope we haven't gotten too accustomed to it, at least not yet. I think we are amazingly fortunate to be able to see and know things that no one before could possibly have known. There is something there. Some people will think it's boring. "It's just rocks and mush," they'll say. But I think it's special. It's a place. It's an actual, real, physical place that is up there, just out of reach until now.

    No amount of desire or commitment (or for that matter luck) could have revealed it to our fathers, or their fathers, or their fathers. No matter how badly they might have wanted to know it, it was hidden from them. They had to guess, or fantasize, or just live with the mystery. But we get to see it. We are the first.

    And the best part about the universe is, there's always more to see just around the next corner.
    • My guess is that there will be three ladies painted on the bottom of a pool.

      But that's just a guess.
    • by back_pages (600753) <.back_pages. .at. .cox.net.> on Thursday October 28, 2004 @08:00PM (#10659056) Journal
      Man this isn't lost on me.

      I'm not even an amateur astronomer but I've been GLUED to these news reports. Didn't Arthur C. Clarke land the Chinese on Titan in 2063 or 3001, only to be eat by a methane-sea monster? Of course, Imperial Earth has Titan colonized.

      I've been entranced by these pictures and realizing, as have you, that this is not entirely unlike digging up a miniature monolith on the moon - we're exposing something to the collective consciousness of the only intelligence (we know of) in the universe. We've got our shovel stuck in untilled earth, about to turn over the soil for the first time in history, but there is a whole world sitting there on the blade of the shovel.

      The scope of the mysteries these first data suggest only reinforces my awe. It's not like Mars - "These mysterious lines appear to be liquid erosion." It's like, "Pretty pictures, huh? The best and brightest of the world can't figure out what's in those clouds, but we detect dim rocks in distant galaxies by watching the stars wobble." Argh! I want to go to Titan!

      I don't know, maybe I've finally just flipped out on something. I want to wallpaper my living room with pictures from Cassini. That's normal, right? I just gotta know what is down there. Put me on the slow spaceship to Saturn and I'll turn into the half-crazed captain who sacrifices everything and jeopardizes his whole crew to complete the mission. Hell, me and HAL would be best friends. Screw you naysayers, I MUST KNOW what's on Titan.

      I'm practically counting down the days until the landing probe touches the surface.

    • landing on titan (Score:5, Informative)

      by gatrox (826121) on Thursday October 28, 2004 @08:15PM (#10659157)
      Cassini carries huygens, a land probe which will (hopefully) land on Titan on january 14th. There is an interesting story on ieee spectrum [ieee.org] about an engineer who prevented the mission from certain failure.
    • by Audacious (611811) on Thursday October 28, 2004 @09:07PM (#10659439) Homepage
      I believe the following will probably be put forwards:

      1. Since Titan is a moon and since it appears dead (so far), then - like our moon - there wouldn't be a lot of geological shifts (ie: Mountains, valleys, active volcanoes, and the like).

      2. Since Titan has an atmosphere (unlike our moon), and since the particles in atmospheres tend to erode things over time (and how many millions or billions of years has this been going on?) it is likely that the reason there aren't large mountains, valleys, and the like is because if #1 is true, then - unlike our world - there hasn't been geological activities going on for a long time and any mountains have been worn down and any valleys have been filled.

      3. Given #1 and #2, then you would wind up with a nearly smooth surface over the entire planet - given enough time.

      As has already been said in the report - the lights near the southern pole are up for grabs. It is likely that, similar to our planet's poles, the radiation bombaring Titan is concentrated on or near the poles. Especially the pole which is pointed more towards the sun. So the lights could just be the same types of lights we get here in our far northern and southern realms.

      And now for speculation:

      1. The lights could be some form of life or an indication of life or civilization. More likely something along the lines of plankton. Plankton can sometimes emit light also. Before the seas were harvested for seaweed, polluted, etc... there were tales/stories by those who plied the seas about the entire ocean glowing (which would make it somewhere around a 20 mile across area which glowed). This would make it possible that, given no higher order creatures eating the light emitting air plankton, that they could be hundreds of miles across.

      As for the lighter/darker areas if the darker areas are oil areas then it is the largest oil spill ever. (Just joking!) Really though, it is more likely they are areas of a liquid gas. I only say this because a gas like natural gas usually stays a gas unless the temperature is reduce to the point where the molecules slow down and create a liquid. For all we know, the dark areas could be a highly corrosive substance we've never even run into before. It is also highly likely that no matter what it turns out to be - it will be highly poisoneous to a human being. (I say this only because there are so many naturally occurring substances which are toxic to people in general.)

      What would be more interesting would be that we actually find some kind of creatures living on Titan with a different metabolic make-up. Such as silicon (Horta anyone?). That would be the most interesting thing I would think. I also believe that Titan holds a much better chance of containing some kind of life than Mars. This is only because Titan has a bit more atmosphere than Mars and thus has a somewhat better protection against the radiation Saturn and the Sun are throwing at it.

      Just my $0.02 worth. :-)
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Did the Covenant glass it?
  • by llamaluvr (575102) on Thursday October 28, 2004 @07:49PM (#10658980) Journal
    Cassini's data has already thrown scientists for loop.

    Main screen turn on!

    • Cassini's data has already thrown scientists for loop.

      No, that's correct english, they are obviously describing some of the intricacies of their software. Specifically their Java exception handling.

      BTM
  • by LiquidMind (150126) on Thursday October 28, 2004 @07:53PM (#10659006)
    i don't think this should be such an odd find. what are the prerequisits for a planet/moon having tectonic plates? the article states that Titan has a pretty dense atmosphere, that would protect it from most objects hurdling through space.

    ...maybe the whole moon is covered in some sorta liquid goo that covers all the valleys and troughs (sp?)

    maybe it just wants to be different.
    • The problem is that if there is no plate tectonics on a planet, then the planet will become pockmarked with craters regardless of the thickness of the atmosphere. The earth has a fairly dense atmosphere and still has some pretty significant cratering.
    • by mikael (484) on Thursday October 28, 2004 @08:15PM (#10659159)
      i don't think this should be such an odd find. what are the prerequisits for a planet/moon having tectonic plates?


      A major collision with a large planetoid is the main requirement (imparting a huge amount of heat), and a means of keeping this energy in the core, so that at least the central part of the planet/moon remains semi-liquid. Otherwise everything would just cool down and become a solid lump.

      Titan is believed to be heated by gravitation stress from Jupiter, if not from the magnetic field as well. There could also be natural fission.

      It is going to be interesting to see if there is enough liquid to partially or completely cover the surface (oceans/continents, marshy areas, complete ocean with high waves/frozen poles).
  • Curious (Score:3, Funny)

    by Trogre (513942) on Thursday October 28, 2004 @07:56PM (#10659027) Homepage
    It looks lovely and smooth (and orange) in Celestia [shatters.net].

    So how come NASA is surprised when Titan turns out to look similar to existing models? Do the rest of us know something that NASA doesn't?

    It's funny. Laugh.

  • by JavaNPerl (70318) * on Thursday October 28, 2004 @07:58PM (#10659040)
    is easily attributed to subtle variances in the curd temperature during the cheese formation process... oops wrong moon.
  • by Doc Ruby (173196) on Thursday October 28, 2004 @08:01PM (#10659068) Homepage Journal
    We're just walk-on extras in someone else's videogame, optimized to save rendering time where there's no prizes.
  • by Wes Janson (606363) on Thursday October 28, 2004 @08:04PM (#10659084) Journal
    It's made out of antimatter! Don't try landing, the results could be catastrophic!!!


    For the record, I *must* be a science fiction geek, because only a true SF fan would remember that Niven story.
  • by eDavidLu (825600) on Thursday October 28, 2004 @08:10PM (#10659125)
    Interesting that the article is in the "Local News" section of the Tucson Citizen.

    I thought some of the landscapes around Tucson look extraterrestrial. Now it makes sense.
  • not again (Score:3, Funny)

    by kongit (758125) on Thursday October 28, 2004 @08:32PM (#10659239)
    Oh hell. The spheroids are at it again. Betty, get me my shotgun.
  • Jello? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jmoo (67040) on Thursday October 28, 2004 @08:34PM (#10659244)
    First off I'm not a chemist so please excuse me if this is totally off base.

    Is it possible that the surface of Titan is basically a hydrocarbon mix that is basically like slush or jelly? With the cold temperature and higher atmospheric pressure wouldn't that turn all the ethane and methane into something not unlike diesel fuel when its really cold? This would explain the relative smooth face of Titan

    Hmmm...maybe the Huygens probe will just bounce when it lands.
    • Re:Jello? (Score:3, Interesting)

      by k98sven (324383)
      Is it possible that the surface of Titan is basically a hydrocarbon mix that is basically like slush or jelly? With the cold temperature and higher atmospheric pressure wouldn't that turn all the ethane and methane into something not unlike diesel fuel when its really cold?

      I'm a chemist, and you're off-base.

      The intermolecular forces between methane and ethane molecules are very small. Even at high pressure/low temperature they will have low density and viscosity.

      Look it up [nist.gov] (then choose 'fluid properti
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 28, 2004 @08:54PM (#10659362)
    Titan is a far away object, right?

    Why bother to render it with any more detail than absolutely necessary? And when the PC's get too close, obscure it with cloud.

    And you call yourself geeks and gamers....

  • Erosion (Score:4, Interesting)

    by UncleJam (786330) on Thursday October 28, 2004 @09:49PM (#10659641)
    Based on the radar data, Titan is extremely flat. I've also seen on the posts here that people expect it to have some tetonics, or heat inside the planet due to all the stress of hanging around saturn.

    Is it possible that the reason the satellite is so smooth is because of some erosion? If the weather conditions are hostile, and throw in that the clouds might consist of polymers, then that would just tear everything to shreds.
  • by Old Wolf (56093) on Thursday October 28, 2004 @09:50PM (#10659650)
    The article mentioned that this has "thrown scientists for loop". WTF does that mean? Is it something like:

    for (;;)
    {
    launch_satellite();
    if (strange_discovery)
    throw "we've got hello from outer space!"
    }
  • by r2q2 (50527) <{zitterbewegung} {at} {gmail.com}> on Thursday October 28, 2004 @10:24PM (#10659796) Homepage
    Wow, a complete civilization that's sole job is to ride zamboni's across titan's surface completely resurfacing the whole thing. This must be a sign of life on Titan
  • by Viol8 (599362) on Friday October 29, 2004 @07:04AM (#10661695)
    Perhaps this possibility is precluded by other data but it would make sense for the surface to be smooth(ish) if it was all liquid. As for the 50m high variations , well in gravity that low it could be easily possible for normal waves to be that height (though where does the energy come from? Don't know). Anyway , just a though...

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