from Thuntherbolts Website


Dec 02, 2004


Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute


Caption: A mosaic of nine processed images recently acquired during
Cassiniís first very close flyby of Saturnís moon Titan on Oct. 26, 2004, constitutes the most detailed full-disc view of the mysterious moon. The view is centered on 15 degrees south latitude, and 156 degrees west longitude.


Scientists believe the images show a landscape that is still being shaped. "We are seeing a place that is alive, geologically speaking," says Charles Elachi, head of the team running Cassiniís radar instrument. The reason given is that Titan must have suffered numerous meteor impacts in the past, yet its surface today is largely crater-free. Somehow these scars must have been eroded or filled in.

The same was said about Venus when orbiting spacecraft revealed that planetís surface beneath its clouds. However, it is only supposition that Titanís (and Venusí) surface is still being shaped. We have no evidence that either were cratered by numerous impacts in the past. We have no evidence of the impactors. There may have been no impact craters to fill. We must allow that Venus and Titan may have new surfaces if planets and moons were not formed at the same time through impact accretion billions of years ago. Their atmospheres are certainly anomalous.

But what of the cratering seen on other bodies in the solar system? 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. And 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.

The enigma of Titan may prove to be the result of an unquestioned belief in the nebular hypothesis. Predictions based on that story have had no success in the space age. So we may confidently pursue the idea that planets did not accrete from a solar nebula.

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 attempting to work 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 can yield far more reliable predictions about what we will find in space than the purely hypothetical approach.


Dec 03, 2004

Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Michigan


Caption: This data is from Cassiniís ion and neutral mass spectrometer, which detects charged and neutral particles in the atmosphere

Another major enigma surrounding Titan is its atmosphere. Titanís atmosphere is believed by many scientists to be similar to Earthís early atmosphere billions of years ago. Toby Owens, principal scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said:

"What weíve 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."

The graph above shows that the proportion of heavy nitrogen-15 in the atmosphere of Titan is much greater than that around other planets. Scientists believe that the lighter nitrogen-14 was lost over large geologic times scales for reasons that remain unknown. It 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. But it would mean that Titan once had an atmosphere 40 times as thick as Earthís - making it a dwarf version of a gas planet. íThis bizarre world may be far more complex that we have begun to imagine,í says Larry Soderblom of the US Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona.

The striking disparity in nitrogen isotopes is telling us something about the way planetary atmospheres are formed rather than how they evolve. And why do we insist that a starís "children" all be born at the same time? Titanís atmosphere is primitive, but not in the sense that it is 4.6 billion years old or that it was once 40 times as thick as Earthís. Instead, there has not been time for young Titan to lose much atmosphere. Hannes Alfvťn 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 magneto-hydrodynamics 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 understood."

While acknowledging Alfvťnís point, it is possible to go a step further and invoke the electrical behavior of plasma, not just its magnetic behavior. The electrical model of planet birth proposes that planets are born by electrical expulsion of some of the matter of a star or gas giant in a tremendous "flare." The rings we see around the gas giant planets are evidence of former episodes of expulsion, not accretion. The rings of Saturn are the most recent. It is important to note that flaring red dwarf stars are extremely common and are an unexplained phenomenon. Red dwarf flares are like a stellar lightning flash but they may produce 10,000 times as many x-rays as a comparable flare on the Sun.

The electric discharge model would have profound effects on the new planetís atmosphere, including that of a 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, which determines the initial bulk composition of the atmospheric components.

Chemical elements are then sorted in the plasma discharge according to their critical ionization velocity. Also isotopes will separate in the combined electric and magnetic fields of the 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 (such as nitrogen-14 to nitrogen-15) and short-lived radioactive species - we find evidence of that in some meteorites that are also formed in this birth process.

The 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.

There is another mechanism that could contribute to the lack of nitrogen-14 in Titanís atmosphere. Nitrogen-14 can capture an electron from the discharge 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 Titanís 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.

To suggest that "Titan once had an atmosphere 40 times as thick as Earthís - 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 Jupiterís Ganymede or Callisto. Titan simply hasnít had time to lose its atmosphere - just as Saturn hasnít had time to lose its rings following its last discharge.

And what about Venus with its hot and heavy atmosphere?

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission, visit and the Cassini imaging team home page,