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At last, on July 1, 2004, the Cassini spacecraft fired off its breaking rocket, glided into orbit around Saturn, and started taking pictures that left scientists in awe. It wasn't as if they hadn't been prepared for such wonders. The weeks leading up to Cassini's arrival at Saturn had served to intensify their already heated anticipation. It seemed as if each approach-picture taken was more enticing than the one preceding it.
Despite this oddball moon's many exotic attributes, it actually sports one of the most Earth-like surfaces in our Solar System. Titan may also experience volcanic activity, but its volcanoes would erupt with different ingredients than the molten-rock lava that shoots out from the volcanoes of Earth. In dramatic contrast to what occurs on our own planet, Titan's volcanoes erupt icy water "lava" (cryovolcanism). Titan's entire alien surface has been sculpted by gushing methane and ethane, which carves river channels, and fills its enormous great lakes with liquid natural gas.
But small moons like Methone are usually geologically inactive and bereft of an atmosphere. Therefore, they are usually unable to smooth away the scars. Dr. Peter Thomas of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, explained it this way in the May 17, 2013 New Scientist: "When we look at objects less than 200 kilometers in radius, they are all like potatoes. They have lumps, grooves, craters." This makes Methone's smooth surface a mystery. Dr. Thomas is a Cassini team member.
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Dr. Rodriguez and his colleagues also spotted a trio of odd equatorial brightenings in infrared images obtained by Cassini during Titan's 2009 northern equinox. At the time, the scientists speculated that the brightenings might also be the same kind of methane clouds observed in tropical areas. However, this proved not to be the case. A later investigation conducted by the astronomers revealed that these brightenings were caused by something entirely different.
Most of the moons of our Solar System are intriguing, frigid, and dimly lit ice-worlds in orbit around the quartet of outer, majestic, gaseous giant planets that circle our Star, the Sun, from a great distance. In our quest for the Holy Grail of discovering life beyond our Earth, some of these icy moons are considered to be the most likely worlds, within our own Solar System, to host life. This is because they are thought to hide oceans of life-sustaining liquid water beneath their alien shells of ice--and life as we know it requires liquid water to emerge, evolve, and flourish. In April 2017, a team of planetary scientists announced that they have discovered the presence of hydrogen gas in a plume of material erupting from Enceladus, a mid-sized moon of the ringed, gas-giant planet Saturn, indicating that microbes may exist within the global ocean swirling beneath the cracked icy shell of this distant small world. Currently, two veteran NASA missions are providing new and intriguing details about the icy, ocean-bearing moons of the gas-giant planets, Jupiter and Saturn, further heightening scientific fascination with these and other "ocean worlds" in our Solar System--and beyond.
Like our own Earth, Titan's atmosphere is mainly made up of nitrogen--but with the added ingredient of a small amount of methane. It is the only other world in our Solar System that is actually known to have a cycle of liquids that shower back down to the surface again, in Titan's case as large, lazy drops of hydrocarbon rain. The clouds of Titan pour torrential rains of gasoline down to the surface of this tormented moon. Even though the ingredients are different, this cycle is similar to our own planet's water cycle. Many planetary scientists propose that Titan contains a subsurface ocean of sloshing liquid water.