School: BASIS Phoenix, Phoenix, AZ
Teacher: Shelby Stringer
The moon that I find most interesting is Titan. For many decades, scientists have been wondering if life exists on other planets besides Earth. Titan is one of the many places in the solar system that scientists have been studying the possibilities of life. Titan’s orange haze kept its surface a mystery for many years until the arrival of the Cassini mission in 2004. It was thought to be the largest moon in the solar system until the Voyager was close enough to see that it was smaller than Ganymede. There is an unresolved mystery surrounding Titan’s atmosphere. Since methane is broken down by sunlight, scientists believe that there is another source that replenishes what is lost.
I find Titan interesting because it is a place that has many similarities with Earth. Cassini showed us that Titan is the most similar Earth-like place in our solar system. Titan’s atmosphere may escape to space just like Earth’s atmosphere does. The Cassini spacecraft has detected polar winds that draw methane and oxygen out along Saturn’s magnetic field and out of the atmosphere. A similar thing is believed to be happening to Earth’s magnetic field. Titan is the only other place in the Solar System that has stable liquids on its surfaces.
Another reason Titan is an interesting place is because of the help it provided for the Cassini mission. Titan played a dominant role in Cassini's landing. It provided the gravitational boost the spacecraft needed to thread between Saturn’s rings. The moon helped increase the spacecraft’s velocity by approximately 1,925 mph. Over its 13 years of orbiting Saturn, it made 127 encounters with Titan. Earl Maize said, “ The final encounter is something of a bittersweet goodbye, but it has done throughout the mission, Titan’s gravity is once again sending Cassini where we need it to go.” This shows us that Titan was very useful in the Cassini mission.
Titan is one of the few places in the Solar system where life might be possible. It is thought that if our sun develops into a red giant star, then Titan’s temperature could increase enough for stable oceans to exist on the surface. If this occurs, then Titan’s conditions could be similar to that of Earth’s, allowing conditions favorable for some forms of life. Experiments on Earth suggest that Titan could be more habitable than previously thought. Complex organic chemicals once thought to hover high in the atmosphere may lie closer to the surface than estimated. The same kind of light that drives biological chemistry on Earth could also drive chemistry on Titan, even though Titan receives far less sunlight than Earth does.
If I could send another spacecraft back to Titan, I would want to learn about life on Titan. I want to know what it would be like living there if we ever get the opportunity to. So far the research has been full of theories and possibilities, I want to learn whether or not they are true.