The Webb Space Telescope snapped images of Saturn’s moon Titan last month, which are now released for our viewing pleasure. The images offer a newly detailed view of Titan’s atmospheric makeup and even elements of its strange surface.
The telescope’s NIRCam instrument, which images in the near-infrared range, captured the views. They show clouds in Titan’s atmosphere (whimsically named A and B in annotated images) but also a blurry look at Kraken Mare, which is thought to be a methane sea, as well as dark sand dunes.
More data from Titan is expected from Webb’s instruments—including NIRSpec, which can take stock of the planet’s chemical composition, as it already has with distant exoplanets—in May or June 2023.
Titan is about 50% wider than Earth’s Moon. It’s the only moon in the solar system with a substantial atmosphere (dominated by nitrogen) and the only place besides Earth known to have rivers, lakes, and seas.
While many of these liquid bodies are hydrocarbons—imagine entire methane oceans—scientists believe that water oceans may sit beneath the moon’s icy surface. That makes Titan an alien environment with promise for the search for life beyond Earth.
Future data will also be taken by MIRI, Webb’s mid-infrared instrument. MIRI will reveal more of Titan’s spectrum; images from the instrument are notable for their starbursts of color, what the Webb team refers to as “skittles” in the sky.
Titan’s makeup is so exciting and so enigmatic that NASA is planning to send a probe there in the mid-2030s. The 3-foot Dragonfly rotorcraft will make the billion-mile trek out to the moon. It will search for biosignatures and measure Titan’s chemical composition using a suite of 11 instruments.
It won’t be the first time humans put a spacecraft on Titan. In 2005, the Huygens probe alighted on the surface and even snapped an image before going dark. It offers a tantalizingly limited look at this distant and alien world.