25 November 2004
On October 26, NASA’s
Cassini-Huygens spacecraft swung by Titan at a
distance of less than 1200 kilometers, the first of many fly-bys
planned in the next few years.
Saturn’s largest moon and the second largest moon in the
solar system, after Jupiter’s Ganymede.
Titan is an enigma, having a
massive atmosphere mainly of nitrogen with a pressure at the surface
1.6 times that of the Earth’s air at sea level. Its atmosphere also
contains methane and at least nine other organic molecules.
methane is being continually destroyed by solar photolysis, which
raises a further problem about its source of resupply.
Unfortunately, the organic molecules in Titan’s atmosphere cause a
global orange haze that has prevented us from seeing surface
features. So, like the Magellan orbiter that allowed us to “see” the
surface of Venus, Cassini is equipped with haze penetrating radar
and infrared scanners.
On this first close flyby of Titan Cassini’s radar mapped about one
percent of Titan’s surface. The radar survey covered a strip 120
kilometers (75 miles) wide and 1,960 kilometers (1,200 miles) long
in Titan’s northern hemisphere. Cassini also imaged
features through the haze using an infrared spectrometer. The
The Dallas Morning News reported,
“When the $3 billion
Cassini spacecraft sailed past Titan three weeks ago, it was
supposed to clear up many of the mysteries about Saturn’s largest
moon. Instead, it has left scientists more befuddled.”
The new Cassini images
do not support previous theories about Saturn’s moon.
NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
"This image taken by Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping
spectrometer clearly shows surface features on Titan. It is a
composite of false-color images taken at three infrared wavelengths:
2 microns (blue); 2.7 microns (red); and 5 microns (green).
methane cloud can be seen at the south pole (bottom of image). This
picture was obtained as Cassini flew by Titan at altitudes ranging
from 100,000 to 140,000 kilometers (88,000 to 63,000 miles), less
than two hours before the spacecraft’s closest approach. The inset
picture shows the landing site of Cassini’s piggybacked Huygens
This report should be read in conjunction with my
news item in June,
which argues a different history of the solar system and, in
It is time to reexamine the predictions I made
there about Titan:
“We should expect to see family traits amongst the members of the
Saturnian family – including the departed Earth,
Mars and Venus. For
example, the moon Titan, which is larger than the planet
seems to be a close sibling of Venus, probably born from
about the same time.
That Titan may be young is hinted at by its
eccentric orbit, which cannot have persisted for billions of years.
So we should be alert to similarities between Titan and
Venus. It is
already known that Titan has the densest atmosphere of any
terrestrial planet, after Venus. That is a huge puzzle for
After all, two of Jupiter’s moons,
Ganymede and Callisto, have no atmosphere yet they are of similar size. So it
would not be surprising if Titan had warm spots over the poles, like
Venus. Titan also has a global layered haze like Venus. (Haze layers
seem to be the condensed form that non-polar molecules take in an
They are quite distinct from the vertically
moving clouds that polar molecules, like water, form). And just as Mars has a whiff of the Venusian atmosphere, with carbon dioxide and
nitrogen as major constituents, we may expect to find that the Titan
atmosphere has some of the smell of Venus about it. Both Venus’ and
Titan’s atmospheres, being very young, will not yet be in
equilibrium. So calculations about atmospheric constituents that
assume equilibrium as a starting point will be wrong.
found in Titan’s atmosphere is quickly destroyed by sunlight so it
has to be replenished. That has led to the suggestion that Titan
must have a hydrocarbon ocean for the methane to have lasted for the
conventional age of the solar system. However, radar, infrared and
radio observations of Titan have not found signs of a hydrocarbon
ocean. In fact one radar return was ‘of a type that we would expect
to get back from Venus.’
Titan is most likely a baby brother of
So what has been discovered in this first close flyby of
In New Scientist of November 6, 2004, Titan images add to moon’s
mystery, Stephen Battersby reported:
“The world got its first peek at the surface of
Saturn’s moon Titan
last week. The images were taken as NASA’s Cassini-Huygens
spacecraft swept past the moon... The images show a landscape that
is clearly still being shaped.
Although Titan must have suffered
numerous meteor impacts in the past, its surface today is largely
crater-free. Somehow these scars must have been eroded or filled in.
‘We are seeing a place that is alive, geologically speaking,’ says
Charles Elachi, head of the team running Cassini’s radar
Comment: That is precisely what was said about
Venus when the
Magellan Orbiter revealed that planet’s surface. It is only
supposition that Titan’s surface is “still being shaped.”
based on the belief that “Titan must have suffered numerous meteor
impacts in the past” and therefore something must have occurred from
within the moon to fill the craters. However, like Venus, there may
have been no impact craters to fill.
No one has witnessed a crater
formed by a celestial impact. The relationship between craters and
impacts is a hypothesis that has been accepted without considering
another common form of cratering – that of electrical cratering.
electrical cratering has the virtue of explaining all of the curious
features of planetary craters, particularly their circularity and
tendency to occur in chains, with little disturbance of one crater
by its neighbor.
We must therefore allow that Venus and Titan may both have new
surfaces if planets and moons are not formed through accretion by
impacts billions of years ago.
The “befuddlement” and “mystery” may
prove to be the result of an unquestioned belief in that hypothesis.
Predictions based on that story have had no success in the space
age. So we may be confident that planets did not accrete from a
Professor William H. McCrae wrote,
“It is impossible to discover the
origin of the solar system by observing it now, and working steadily
backwards in time in order to infer the whole of its past history.”
While agreeing with this statement, we must nevertheless make use of
all available human observations of the sky before working forward
from some hypothetical beginning.
One of the greatest, albeit
unheralded, surprises of the 21st century will be that the last
chapter of the development of the solar system was witnessed and
recorded by modern humans in prehistory. A forensic attitude to that
evidence, as outlined in the earlier news item, can yield far more
reliable predictions about what we will find in space than the
purely hypothetical approach.
The New Scientist report continues:
“Titan’s surface has thrown up other puzzles too. Infrared and radar
images reveal bright "islands" surrounded by darker material, often
crossed by long narrow features. These long lines - perhaps canyons,
ridges or cracks - are up to 100 kilometers long but less than 200
meters wide. Just what these features are and how they formed is the
focus of intense discussion.”
NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
>>These images show the surface of Titan at two different infrared
wavelengths. They were captured by the visual and infrared mapping
spectrometer onboard Cassini as the spacecraft flew by at an
altitude of 1200 kilometers (745 miles) - Cassini’s closest
approach yet to the hazy moon.
The image on the right, taken at a
wavelength of 2 microns, is the most detailed picture to date of the Titan’s surface. It reveals complex
landforms with sharp boundaries, which scientists are eager to
further study. The image on the left was taken at a wavelength
of 1 micron and shows approximately what a digital camera might
Unless they are
artifacts of the imaging, the lines in the right
hand image seem to be chains of craters. Venus too is covered with
“long, narrow features” of constant width over very long distances,
often featuring a chain of craters.
They are identified
conventionally as ‘lava tubes’ or ‘collapse pits’ along presumed
fault lines but there are many problems associated with such
The electrical explanation sees these narrow linear
features formed by cosmic lightning, traveling across the surface.
It explains the length of the channels, their constant width and cratering. We may expect many of the channels to have raised levees
built up by ejecta from the trench. The channels may run uphill as
well as down, discounting a flow of liquid.
>>Martian dune field with blurred image on the left shows how the
left hand infrared image of Titan could be a result of a similarly
pitted or etched surface.
>>This radar image of the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan was
acquired on October 26, 2004, when the Cassini spacecraft flew
approximately 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) above the surface and
acquired radar data for the first time. It reveals a complex
geologic surface thought to be composed of icy materials and
A wide variety of geologic terrain types can be seen on the image;
brighter areas may correspond to rougher terrains and darker areas
are thought to be smoother. A large dark circular feature is seen at
the western (left) end of the image, but very few features
resembling fresh impact craters are seen. This suggests that the
surface is relatively young. Enigmatic sinuous bright linear
features are visible, mainly cutting across dark areas.
The image is about 150 kilometers (93 miles) wide and 250 kilometers
(155 miles) long, and is centered at 50 N, 82 W in the northern
hemisphere of Titan, over a region that has not yet been imaged
optically. The smallest details seen on the image are about 300
meters (984 feet) across.
On November10 the
NewScientist.com news service ran another report
by Stephen Battersby titled:
Titan has no breaking waves.
“Ideas about the nature of
Saturn’s moon Titan are going through a
total revolution as a result of new observations from the Cassini
For many years, the prevailing view has been that
Titan, hidden under perpetual cloud cover, was the only place in the
solar system other than Earth whose surface was dominated by large
liquid lakes or oceans up to three kilometers deep. But close-ups of
the surface completely rule out such widespread liquid bodies, say
scientists in the Cassini team.
The liquid was thought to be hydrocarbons such as ethane rather than
water, because of Titan’s frigid -179°C surface temperature. There
had been hope that these bodies of liquid might harbor early stages
in the development of biological molecules, and perhaps even simple
forms of life.
All that has changed, according to planetary
scientist Robert Nelson of NASA-JPL. ‘That paradigm has been shaken
to its foundations,’ he said on Tuesday at the American Astronomical
Society’s Division of Planetary Sciences annual meeting.
Dry as a bone
As recently as 2003, Earth-based radar observations provided strong
evidence that as much as three-quarters of Titan’s surface was wet.
But the new close-ups, while they only cover a portion of the
surface, have completely ruled this out and make it highly unlikely
that there is any liquid on the surface at all. Images taken by Cassini on 26 October, from a distance of just 1200
failed to show any signs of the mirror-like reflections that would
be expected from a liquid surface, even though the angles were right
to see such reflections from at least four locations.
profiles showed considerable variations across dark areas previously
identified as possible lakes or seas. A liquid surface would have
been more uniform. Radar imaging also showed variations in
reflectivity. ‘There is no evidence of oceans,’ says Carolyn Porco,
Cassini imaging team leader. But project manager Dennis Matson
cautions that ‘we’ve only seen part of Titan.’
liquid bodies are ruled out, it is still possible there may be some
much smaller bodies. Perhaps more likely, he suggests, is a kind of
slushy ice surface.”
Comment: The idea that
Titan may have a considerable amount of low
density liquids or ices came originally from calculations of its
density. However, estimates of the composition of celestial bodies
assume that we understand the real nature of gravity. We obviously
don’t. So there is no reason to assume that the gravitational
constant, ‘G,’ is the same for all bodies in the universe,
particularly when it is the most elusive ‘constant’ to measure on
So we cannot be confident about the calculated ratio of rock
to ices on Titan.
But the presence of methane in Titan’s atmosphere
seemed to require an ocean of liquid hydrocarbons as a reservoir
that could provide a source of that gas lasting for the conventional
age of the solar system. However, the radar image of Titan fits more
closely (as we shall see) with some of those returned by the
Magellan Orbiter from dry and rocky Venus. The
methane puzzle has
not been solved.
The report continues:
“Suggestions of an active, dynamic surface on
Titan are beginning to emerge. Not a single crater has been
identified yet, which means the surface must be young and active.
And there are some indications of volcanic activity produced by
liquid water. Such cryovolcanism has been seen on other icy moons.
One large circular feature, suspected of being a crater until closer
examination showed it to be flat, closely resembles the pancake
domes seen on Venus that are produced by magma welling up to produce
a bubble that then slumps down to a nearly flat profile.
because of the temperatures, the features would be produced by
flowing ice rather than molten rock. Other features resemble the
lobes of some surface lava flows. But while the old view of Titan
fades, scientists do not know what will take its place.
"We don’t understand what we’re looking at,"
Matson says. "Titan is
going to be a real challenge."
Comment: The surprise about the
lack of craters and Titan’s apparent
“active, dynamic surface” mirror the comments made about Venus when
radar images were first returned. The large flat circular feature on
Titan does resemble the pancake domes seen on Venus.
Pancake domes on Venus. They are about 25 km in diameter and up to
1 km high. Note the small central pits
However these domes were not formed by volcanic action. It would
require an unacceptably large number of coincidences to produce such
circularity in just one of these domes.
The surface must be
absolutely horizontal and the flow from the central vent must be
perfectly even in all horizontal directions. But there are many
domes on Venus.
In the Electric Universe model, the
domes are more simply explained
as the raised blisters sometimes caused by cosmic lightning.
Small-scale circular raised blisters have been found following a
negative cloud-to-ground lightning strike to a lightning conductor
cap. They are called “fulgamites.” The shape of the mounds and the
central crater seems to be due to the magnetic pinch effect. Even
more telling, perhaps, is the rough concentric and radial pattern on
top of the domes – features also seen in photomicrographs of tiny
A good further test of this hypothesis would be to
determine if the surface around the domes is sunken. Fulgamites show
this characteristic “borrow pit” effect where the material has been
drawn inwards and up to form the raised blister. It is not something
to be expected from a volcanic upwelling.
Inexplicably in terms of the volcanic model, where two domes overlap
the relief of the underlying dome does not disturb the overriding
This, and the chain formation seen above, is typical of
electrical scarring in general where one crater is often centered on
the rim of another with little disturbance of the existing crater.
In cratering, the surface tends to be the cathode rather than the
anode. With fulgamites, one mound often occurs on top of another as
a result of multiple strokes within the lightning flash.
The branched sinuous features running diagonally across the image
are also typical of filamentary discharges across a planetary
surface. In places these channels will be seen to be a chain of
pits. They are consistent with the linear features seen in the
Cryovolcanism is the eruption of water or gas onto the surface of a
planet or moon due to internal heating. It has only been observed on
Triton, the largest moon of Neptune, during the flyby of
However, the plume seen on Triton may be of the same electrical
nature as the plumes on Io, in which case it is not strictly cryovolcanism since it has nothing to do with internal heating of
Cryovolcanism on other icy moons has merely been inferred. The
energetic events that shaped Titan’s surface ceased only thousands
of years ago and probably included normal rock volcanism. Titan’s
surface, like that of Venus, is young but no longer active.
So it seems that the images of Titan’s surface returned by
so far are predictable based on forensic evidence that “we should be
alert to similarities between Titan and Venus” and “Titan
likely a baby brother of Venus!”
This brings us to the other major puzzle about
Titan – its
atmosphere. Titan’s atmosphere is believed by many scientists to be
similar to Earth’s early atmosphere billions of years ago.
Owens, principal scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said:
"What we’ve got is a very primitive atmosphere that has been
preserved for 4.6 billion years. Titan gives us the chance for
cosmic time travel... going back to the very earliest days of
Earth when it had a similar atmosphere."
NASA/JPL/University of Michigan
>>This data is from
Cassini’s ion and neutral mass spectrometer, which
detects charged and neutral particles in the
atmosphere. The graph shows that the amount of light
nitrogen in the atmosphere of Titan is much less
than that around other planets. Scientists believe this nitrogen
was lost over large geologic times scales for reasons that
From New Scientist, November 6:
“Titan appears to have lost much of
its original atmosphere. The moon has an unusually high abundance of
nitrogen-15, compared with the lighter isotope nitrogen-14. That
could be explained if most of the atmosphere had evaporated into
space, a process in which the nitrogen-14 would have escaped more
easily than nitrogen-15.
What could cause such a loss is unknown,
but it would mean that Titan once had an atmosphere 40 times as
thick as Earth’s - making it a dwarf version of a gas planet. ‘This
bizarre world may be far more complex that we have begun to
imagine,’ says Larry Soderblom of the US Geological Survey in
Comment: Titan’s atmosphere is primitive, but not in the sense that
it is 4.6 billion years old. Instead, there has not been time for
young Titan to lose much atmosphere. The striking disparity in
nitrogen isotopes is telling us something about the way planetary
atmospheres are formed rather than how they evolve. Hannes Alfvén
wrote in Evolution of the Solar System (NASA SP-345, 1976),
“..the Laplacian concept of a homogeneous gas disc provides the general
background for most current speculations. The advent of
magnetohydrodynamics about 25 years ago and experimental and
theoretical progress in solar and magnetospheric physics have made
this concept obsolete but this seems not yet to be fully
While acknowledging Alfvén’s point, it is possible to go a step
further and invoke the electrical behavior of plasma, not just its
There are several processes available in the
plasma discharge model of planet birth that will have significant
effects on planetary atmospheres, including that of new moons like Titan. The primary effect comes from the source and depth of the
ejection from the flaring parent dwarf star or gas giant.
red dwarf stars are extremely common and are an unexplained
phenomenon in conventional stellar theory. They are the equivalent
of a stellar lightning flash but they may produce the equivalent of
10,000 times as many x-rays as a comparably energetic flare on the
The x-rays are thought to be lethal to any life forms on planets
near the dwarf star. However, the source of the x-rays in the
“z-pinch” effect and the position of the dwarf’s planets are
probably not what is expected, using the Sun and our planetary
system as a model. See ’Other stars, other worlds, other life?’
it seems, from the geological record, that such flares do not
sterilize a planet but may cause sudden extinctions and the
appearance of new species. The episodic flaring and ejection of
matter from the dwarf star would also account for the sedimentary
layering of bodies, even those without atmospheres – like the Moon.
On Earth it could account for subsequent burial and fossilization of
the victims of such catastrophic electrical events.
How could this electric discharge model affect Titan’s
To begin, there is sorting of chemical elements in the discharge
according to their critical ionization velocity. Also isotopes will
separate in the combined electric and magnetic fields of the cosmic
plasma discharge. Lastly, the plasma gun effect (seen now ejecting
material from Io into space) is known from laboratory tests to be a
copious source of neutrons.
The neutrons may be captured to form
heavy isotopes and short-lived radioactive species - we find
evidence of that in some meteorites that are also formed in this
The variable combination of all of these effects
suggest that it would be unlikely for any two bodies in the same
“family” to have the same initial atmospheres. Subsequent electrical
interactions between planets and moons would serve to transfer
surface materials and atmospheres, transmute elements, and further
complicate the picture. That fits generally with the irregular
elemental and isotopic signatures found in the atmospheres of our
planetary system. For example, nitrogen in lunar soils is 10 times
more abundant than one may expect from the concentrations of solar
wind rare gases.
There are some other mechanisms that could also contribute to the
lack of nitrogen-14 in Titan’s atmosphere. For example, nitrogen-14
can capture an electron to become carbon-14. Carbon-14 decays by
very weak beta decay back to nitrogen-14, with a half-life of
approximately 5,730 years. If the age of Titan’s atmosphere can be
measured in thousands of years instead of billions, then a
significant amount of nitrogen-14 may still be locked up on the
surface as carbon-14.
Also, the intrinsic energy difference between the nitrogen molecule
and the carbon monoxide molecule is quite small. In a hot plasma and
the presence of a catalyst like iron, it has been demonstrated that
nitrogen-14 molecules can convert to carbon monoxide molecules. Both
carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide have been discovered in Titan’s
To suggest that “Titan once had an atmosphere 40 times as thick as
Earth’s - making it a dwarf version of a gas planet,” only
complicates the plainly impossible standard model of formation of
the solar system.
It does not explain why other large moons do not
have substantial residual atmospheres. It seems far more plausible
to suggest that Titan is a much newer moon than Jupiter’s Ganymede
or Callisto. Titan simply hasn’t had time to lose its atmosphere –
just as Saturn hasn’t had time to lose its rings following its last
The new Scientist report (11/6) also says:
“Titan is thought to have
a thick crust of water ice mixed with ammonia, but evidence is
emerging that this may be covered by another layer of organic
material. During the fly-by on 26 October, Cassini picked up
microwaves from the surface that look like the thermal glow of
‘Titan really is covered in organics,’ says
radar team member Ralph Lorenz of the University of Arizona in
Scientists believe these hydrocarbons are created in the
atmosphere when methane is broken down by sunlight and its
components recombine into more complex molecules - a theory
supported by the detection last week of benzene and acetylene high
in the atmosphere.”
Comment: If the Venusian surface were much cooler it would probably
be covered in organic material too. There are many mysteries
remaining about the atmosphere and clouds of that planet. There have
been various claims that hydrocarbons exist in Venus’ atmosphere but
there seems to be a reluctance to pursue such a possibility despite
the fact that model atmospheres with sulfuric acid clouds cannot
explain all of the features of the clouds on that planet.
26, 1963, making known the results of the Mariner probe, Dr. Homer
Newell of NASA announced that, in his judgment of those responsible
for that part of the program,
‘Venus is enshrouded in an envelope of
hydrocarbon gases and dust, 15 miles thick, 45 miles above the
ground of the planet.’
The conclusion was based on the work of
Kaplan, who noted that lower cloud layers on Venus were homogeneous
from top to bottom over a temperature range of 160°C. His conclusion
was that only compounds with multiple C-H (carbon-hydrogen) bonds
have the same physical characteristics over such a temperature
Finally, there was news this week of the first hard evidence of
methane on Mars. It raises the same issue as it does on
is the origin of the methane given that it is broken down by
sunlight on Mars in a few hundred years? I would suggest that the
methane on Mars and Titan had the same origin, since they
electrically with Saturn and Venus only thousands of years ago.
Saturn has methane as a major constituent of its atmosphere,
following hydrogen and helium. On Mars the methane was probably
incorporated with surface material by ion implantation during a
cosmic plasma discharge, which would possibly explain its patchy
distribution and association with implanted hydrogen. The hydrogen
discovered on Mars does not necessarily indicate the presence of
subsurface water or ice, as is commonly thought.
Without doubt, many more surprises await scientists when the Huygens
probe descends into Titan’s atmosphere and Cassini flies past
44 more times over the next four years.
The old paradigm is failing