I wrote a ScienceShot for Science magazine’s website Friday! It’s the one at the top, titled “Splish-splash.”
This is the full picture: two shots taken 15 seconds apart by the Huygens Probe, which landed on Saturn’s moon Titan in 2005.
Astronomers thought those little splotches with the arrows in the right-hand image could have been raindrops–but drops of methane, not water. Titan has a methane cycle the way Earth has a water cycle, with methane lakes that evaporate into methane clouds and return to the lakes as methane drizzle. I bet it smells fantastic. But until now, we hadn’t actually seen any rain.
Technically, we still haven’t. But the long arrow in the bottom left corner of the image points to a genuine methane dewdrop. It condensed on the probe’s cold metal baffle, a little baseball cap-like protrusion that shields the camera from the sun, and then dripped down right in front of the camera. Amazing.
I talked to the author of the paper, Erich Karkoschka at University of Arizona, and another Titan expert at JPL, Robert West at JPL. Neither of them seemed particularly thrilled about the dewdrop. They were more interested in the rest of the paper, which basically said that it wasn’t raining where Huygens landed: the clouds were too wispy, they didn’t find any rainbows, and they didn’t see any actual rain from the sky. Karkoschka said we probably just landed in a dry spot. We’re pretty sure we’ve seen lakes and thunderstorm clouds elsewhere on Titan. He also said there’s a lot of seasonal variation, like monsoons in Arizona–except seasons on Titan last for 30 Earth years.
But the spot where Huygens landed is incredibly geologically rich–in the tiny part of the world it could see from its landing site, it saw hills and plains, sand dunes and river channels. The river channels indicate that liquid flowed through there at some point, but the variety alone is what struck Karkoschka. “Titan may be even more interesting than Earth,” he said.
I tend to leave my personal life out of this Blog O’Science, mostly because it’s not really that relevant. But this is an enormously exciting moment for me, dear readers: this is the first story I’ve ever pitched and sold to a major publication. It happened so quickly it kind of made my head spin: I emailed the editor, David Grimm, on Thursday, and he called me at 10 Friday morning to say he liked the story and wanted it by 2. Whoosh!
Hopefully there will be more of this.