There are 62 moons orbiting Saturn. Titan and Enceladus are two of the top places we should target to explore and learn more about.
Titan: Key Takeaways
- Temperature is -180 deg. C (allowing Methane to exist in liquid form).
- Atmospheric pressure is 45% greater than Earth.
- Titan is 40% the size of Earth.
- According to NASA, Titan’s crust is made of H20 ice, and has liquid water as well as ammonia ocean beneath the surface.
- Titan is almost 1 billion miles from Earth.
Why explore Saturn’s Moon, Titan?
Titan is a rare and unique place for a number of reasons. There are four components of Titan that make it unique and worth exploring.
Aside from Earth, Titan is the only place in our solar system that has precipitation based weather systems.
On Titan, precipitation is in the form of liquid methane and other hydrocarbons, as opposed to water like on Earth.
Of the 160+ known moons in our solar system, Titan is the only one that has an atmosphere.
An atmosphere is an important feature because it shields the planet from harmful radiation, which protects anything that may want to live on or near the surface.
Atmospheres also contribute to the greenhouse effect, trapping heat near the surface, allowing temperature regularity. Titan is so cold that it may seem surprising to hear about the greenhouse effect keeping the planet warm. The fact that Titan is so far from the sun means that it simply receives less heat.
3. Titan’s geological chemistry
Titan has unique chemistry that features an abundance of methane and a nitrogen based atmosphere that is 50% denser than Earth’s. Methane is a molecule that consists of 4 hydrogen atoms bonded to a single carbon, with a relatively low atomic mass, it is normally a gas on Earth at room temperature and standard conditions. Titan’s conditions, however, are cold enough that methane exists in liquid form.
On Titan, the Selk impact crater location features conditions for life as we know it: evidence of past liquid water, hydrocarbon molecules, as well as oxygen, nitrogen, and energy. The crater was likely formed by some sort of asteroidal impact years ago.
Recently, NASA discovered a unique molecule (cyclopropenylidene) within Titan’s atmosphere, that could be a sign of possible life.
This molecule is interesting not only because it is a carbon based molecule – Titan has plenty of those – but that it is a pre-cursor to biochemical processes performed by biological organisms that we see on Earth.
4. Raw Materials
Humans may one day establish establish satellite colonies in order to access these valuable raw materials like methane to use as fuel for rockets and other vehicles.
Titan’s presence of hydrocarbons in such an abundance on its surface as well as atmosphere, makes it attractive as a possible re-fueling destination.
Methane, for example, is a great potential fuel source.
According to SoCalGas, methane produces more heat and light energy by mass than other fossil fuels or hydrocarbons. It produces significantly less carbon dioxide and other pollutants that contribute to smog and unhealthy air.
Methane is lightweight and is more stable than some commonly used rocket propellants such as liquid hydrogen.
Titan is considerably further than our moon as well as Mars. Because of this, sending unmanned robotic missions there takes significant time (Cassini took 7 years, for example) so we should make an effort to do so sooner to accelerate information gathering.
Astronauts may one day be able to use Titan as a layover location, or a type of galactic gas station, similar to the Moon before longer missions.
Therefore, Titan would make sense as one of the first places where humans may want to establish a base – along with the moon and Mars of course.
NASA sent the Cassini-Huygens mission to Titan in 2005 and was actually able to send photos back to Earth.
Since that time, no missions to Titan have been carried out. Perhaps the main reason may be NASA’s budget, which is certainly understandable. We have other initiatives like the International Space Station, the Artemis Space mission, and more.
But there’s good news for our future missions to Titan – in 2026, NASA plans to send another spacecraft towards Titan, which should arrive in 2034. The mission is called Dragonfly, and will examine and document potential chemical processes that could be precursors to life. By taking samples, NASA hopes to find evidence of past life, or at least understand how far prebiotic chemistry may have progressed.
As a drone-based vehicle, the Dragonfly plans to travel over 108 miles, visiting destinations such as the Selk impact crater, which has a large amount of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen present, as well as evidence of water.
Below are a few pictures of the obscure world from that Cassini space rover, which can be accessed via the Nasa Photo Journal. We notice a few specific features of Titan’s surface. But first, consider joining our email list (we only send 1 email per week).
- We’re able to observe methane lakes on the surface.
- As the spacecraft descended towards Titan, the picture below was taken. Natural drainage channels look like an area where liquid water once flowed. It’s possible there is a shoreline depicted in the photo as well.
Below is the first up-close photo of Titan’s surface ever taken. We see chunks of ice, which is evidence of water. the second picture shows globules likely made of frozen water. The clusters here with fewer rocks suggest these may be channels where liquid water once flowed.
Saturn’s Moon, Enceladus
Although each exhibits unique characteristics, Enceladus and is of interest to humans for a couple of reasons – aside from the fact that the temperature is -330 degrees F.
Enceladus moon is currently being studied by NASA for a couple of reasons, mainly because Enceladus has water.
But water on Enceladus is unique:
- The Enceladus moon is surrounded by 25 mile wide crust made of ice.
- Beneath the ice, a 6 mile deep ocean harbors hydrothermal vents that can reach temperatures of 400 degrees C.
- These hydrothermal vents are a result of heat and pressure deep within the core, releasing such massive amounts of heat that cracks have formed in the crust, releasing vapor in the form of geysers.
Much of what we know about Enceladus has come from the Cassini spacecraft, which orbited Saturn, and has observed the moon during flybys.
The ship was able to collect samples of vapor expelled from the geysers, which contained organic material.
Together with water, these are fundamental building blocks for life.
Based on the observations from the Cassini spacecraft, it is possible that the oceans of Enceladus may be habitable to some form of life.
Compared to Titan or even other planets, Enceladus moon is quite small – only 314 miles across. This is similar to one third of the driving distance from Chicago to Dallas.
Given that there is both H2O as well as organic compounds, the planet could in theory provide habitat to some obscure life form. Of course, this is just conjecture.
It cannot be stated for certain whether or not there is some type of aquatic microorganism such as plankton living in the oceans below the crust of Enceladus.
If there is life within the oceans of Enceladus, the bigger question then becomes – did life originate there, or come from somewhere else?
This brings up the question of abiogenesis or panspermia as possible theories for the origin of life.
Could life have evolved there on its own, or might it have arrived via the collision from a meteor or other object?
7 comments on “Exploring Saturn’s Moons – Titan and Enceladus”
Great post, thanks for sharing.