Titan is of special interest because it is the only moon in the solar system with its own atmosphere and clouds. Bigger than Mercury or Earth's moon, it is the single largest unexplored piece of real estate in the solar system. Titan's atmosphere, like Earth's, is mostly
nitrogen, but the moon's opaque brew also contains a significant amount of methane. Scientists believe that when sunlight hits this methane, the light catalyzes the gas to form a smog of hydrocarbons. Because Titan is so cold, some of the hydrocarbons condense and rain onto the moon's surface.
This primitive atmosphere may be similar to what Earth's was like before living organisms began pumping out oxygen. "The thing that makes Titan so exciting to scientists is that they think it probably looks a lot today like Earth did 3 or 4 billion years ago," says Bob Mitchell, NASA's program manager for Cassini. "Therefore, it's a good laboratory for understanding how life began." Scientists don't expect to actually find life in this frigid world. Rather, they're looking for insight into the seeds of life on ours.
The photos sent back from Titan could reveal an "otherworldly" landscape like nothing we've seen on Earth or even Mars, predicts Hansen-Koharcheck, who can't wait to see the shots. She and other scientists, some of whom started working on the mission as far back as 1982 (Hansen-Koharcheck joined the project in 1990) and have patiently waited for Cassini to wend its way to Saturn, are now growing as excited as a 7-year-old on Christmas Eve. "From day one, we were thinking about 2004," says Hansen-Koharcheck.
The fun begins even before Cassini enters orbit. On June 11, the spacecraft will fly within 1,240 miles of Phoebe, one of the planet's most remote moons, for its first direct encounter with the Saturn system. When that happens, some 200 scientists around the world will be hovering over their computers, waiting for the first wave of data to hit their screens. (Get real-time mission updates at saturn.jpl.nasa.gov.)
If Cassini is a big success, it may further weaken NASA's 12-year-old "faster, better, cheaper" mandate, which rarely hits on all three cylinders. Already NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is laying plans for an even more expensive "big science" mission: the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, a nuclear-powered spacecraft that would search for signs of life hidden on three of Jupiter's moons. The Jupiter mission is still in the early design stages, and won't launch until 2012 at the earliest, if at all. But if Cassini and Huygens return shocking results from the outer solar system, multibillion-dollar projects will begin to seem like a bargain.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.