For the first time ever, planetary scientists have created a topographical map of Titan, the largest of Saturn's many moons, and the second-largest in the entire solar system. The map is a boon to researchers who study Titan, a mysterious moon that is arguably the most Earth-like body in our solar system – and it's beautiful, too.
"Titan has so much interesting activity - like flowing liquids and moving sand dunes - but to understand these processes it's useful to know how the terrain slopes," said Ralph Lorenz, a member of the Cassini radar team based at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md., who led the map-design team. "It's especially helpful to those studying hydrology and modeling Titan's climate and weather, who need to know whether there is high ground or low ground driving their models."
Titan's thick haze scatters light in ways that make it very hard for remote cameras to "see" landscape shapes and shadows, the usual approach to measuring topography on planetary bodies. Virtually all the data we have on Titan comes from NASA's Saturn-orbiting Cassini spacecraft, which has flown past the moon nearly 100 times over the past decade. On many of those flybys, Cassini has used a radar imager, which can peer through the haze, and the radar data can be used to estimate the surface height.
"With this new topographic map, one of the most fascinating and dynamic worlds in our solar system now pops out in 3-D," said Steve Wall, the deputy team lead of Cassini's radar team, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "On Earth, rivers, volcanoes and even weather are closely related to heights of surfaces - we're now eager to see what we can learn from them on Titan."
NASA: To create the first global, topographic map of Saturn's moon Titan, scientists analyzed data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft and a mathematical process called splining. This method effectively uses smooth curved surfaces to "join" the areas between grids of existing topography profiles obtained by Cassini's radar instrument. In the upper panel of this graphic, gold colors show where radar images have been obtained over almost half of Titan's surface.
For more information and hi-res images, visit JPL. If colorful, topographical representations of astronomical bodies is your bag, check out these gorgeous maps of the Moon, and this recently released map of Jupiter's volcanic moon Io.