Previous research had left scientists divided over the composition of Titan's surface. At the temperatures recorded on the moon, water freezes and methane and other compounds that are gases on Earth would instead be liquids. These compounds could form vast oceans or rain that falls to Titans surface and covers the moon with a thick layer of organic sediment, some scientists proposed. Others believed that water ice comprises much of the surface.
In order to probe Titan's landscape, astronomers use discreet wavelengths, or 'windows' of light, to peer through its atmosphere. Earlier studies used no more than four windows of infrared light. To get a refined view of the moon's surface, Caitlin Griffith of the University of Arizonas Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and her colleagues utilized eight different wavelengths. Using high-powered infrared telescopes, the team saw highly reflective material on the surface of Titan indicative of water ice. In addition, they did not see evidence for giant swaths of surface covered with organic precipitates.
The presence of ice on the surface could mean that the atmosphere is younger than the moon itself. If this is the case, estimates for how much organic matter should exist (based on the presumption that weather capable of producing organic-rain has existed since Titan formed 4.5 billion years ago) may be too high. Alternatively, Griffith says, it could mean a lot of organic sediment exists but there is enough surface activity--such as wind, rain and flowing streams--to move the sediment around. Although the new results cannot yet resolve these debates, they provide a solid foundation for work that will be done when the Cassini spacecraft reaches Titan in late 2004. Once the craft enters orbit, a probe will be sent down to the moon to relay information back to the mother craft, and then to Earth. "The orbiter will give us images of the surface so well see for the first time if there are oceans," Griffith says. The mission, she hopes, "will further lift the veil from our view of Titan."