Glimpses of Titan’s Weather

by Paul Gilster on January 24, 2005

The European Space Agency’s Paris conference on the 21st gave us a further look at Titan’s exotic weather systems. In particular, the Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer carried by Huygens produced data showing the malleable nature of methane on the surface of the frigid world. According to John Zarnecki, principal investigator for the Huygens Surface Science Package:

“The Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer has detected a ‘whiff’ of methane evaporating off the surface and the SSP data has also shown indications of gas flowing into its sensing area. These gaseous outbursts were released as heat generated by Huygens warmed the soil beneath the probe. This is a tantalising glimpse of the processes at work on Titan and shows how the weather systems operate with methane forming clouds and raining down on to the surface – producing the drainage channels, river beds and other features that we see in the images.”

And back to that ‘creme brulee’ comparison — Huygens’ penetrometer evidently punched through the thin crust to a depth of between 10 and 15 cm. The material underneath, although similar in consistency to sand or clay, proves to be made up of water ice grains as opposed to rock grains, as would be found on Earth. Expect much more from Huygens, since Zarnecki says “We have only looked at a fraction of the data received…”

Next up for Cassini is another Titan flyby, now due in 21 days. Some nice photos of some of the Huygens team can be found at the Open University Surface Science Package Web site.

And good news for University of Idaho professor David Atkinson, whose Doppler Wind Experiment seemed to have failed when its data were not received aboard Cassini. Atkinson spent 18 years on the experiment. But all is not lost, for it turns out that critical data were recovered by radio telescopes on Earth, as described in this AP story.

It will take considerable work to untangle the information, says Atkinson, but it should be doable. “This sounds simple enough, but to actually change all of our experiment software, calculations, and methods to account for it is going to take some work. There are other issues too. The geometry, the distance, etc. No show stoppers, just lots of issues and considerations we’re not prepared for.”