December 7, 2021

A map of River Beds on Titan for Dragonfly to Explore

Explorers either have the benefit of having maps or the burden of creating them.  Similarly, space explorers have been building maps as they go, using all available tools.  Those tools might not always be up to the task, but at least something is better than nothing.  Now, a new map of an exploration destination has emerged – a map of the river valleys of Titan.

Titan is the destination of the Dragonfly mission, which hopes to act like a small drone and jump between different interesting locales on the moon’s surface.  There are plenty of those to look at – Titan is the only other body in the solar system with an active hydrological cycle. However, in its case, the hydrology is caused mainly by liquid methane rather than liquid water.

UT video discussing the Dragonfly mission and why it’s needed.

Mapping the moon has proved difficult, though, as part of that methane hydrological cycle creates impenetrable methane clouds. These do an excellent job of obscuring the moon’s surface from the instrumentation turned toward it – until now. Cassini spent some time collecting data on the moon, including with its synthetic aperture radar system.  With that instrument, scientists at Cornell University, led by recent graduate Julia Miller, managed to develop a rough map of where the river channels and deltas on Titan might be.  

The data from Cassini wasn’t particularly clear, so Ms. Miller and her team had to come up with an effective model for understanding what they were looking at.  They took images of Earth’s river channels using the same kind of degraded radar signals that Cassini managed to collect for Titan to solve that problem.

UT discussing a idea of a Titan mission before Dragonfly

Researchers then compared the type of data they saw from known river channels on Earth to the data collected by Cassini and came up with a preliminary map.  It’s still a very crude map, with approximately 1-kilometer resolution, but it at least is somewhere to start.  

And a start is exactly what Dragonfly needs.  There is still plenty of time to plan a specific landing place on the moon before the mission launches in 2027.  Like so many others in the history of human exploration, this map will hopefully be the first step toward a much more detailed one later.

Learn More:
Cornell – Titan’s river maps may advise Dragonfly’s sedimental journey
The Planetary Science Journal – Fluvial Features on Titan and Earth: Lessons from Planform Images in Low-resolution SAR
UT – Scientists Construct a Global Map of Titan’s Geology
UT – Dragonfly Mission has Some Ambitious Science Goals to Accomplish When it Arrives at Titan

Lead Image:
Some methane and ethane rivers on Titan as seen in Cassini’s radar.
Credit – NASA / JPL / Provided