A parachute descent—like that of the Huygens probe in 2005—is happening again, but this time in the Saturn-cast twilight of winter in Titan’s northern reaches. With a pop, the parachute is released. A few hours later, a muffled splash signals the beginning of the first floating exploration of an extraterrestrial sea—this one not of water but of liquid hydrocarbons.
Thousands of kilometers away, a hot air balloon (a montgolfière) cruises 10 kilometers above sunnier terrain, imaging vistas of dunes, river channels, mountains and valleys carved in water ice, and probing the subsurface for vast quantities of “missing” methane and ethane that might be hidden within a porous icy crust. The data are relayed to a Titan orbiter equipped to unveil Titan’s mysteries with instruments for imaging, radar profiling, and atmospheric sampling, much more powerful and more complete than done by Cassini.
This spacecraft, preparing to enter a circular orbit around Saturn’s cloud-shrouded giant moon, has just completed a series of flybys of Enceladus, a tiny but active world with plumes composed of water and organics being blown outward from its interior into space. As it flew by Enceladus, the Titan orbiter analyzed these plumes directly. Titan and Enceladus could hardly seem more different, and yet they are linked by their origin in the Saturn system, by a magnetosphere that sweeps up mass and delivers energy, and by the possibility that one or both worlds harbor life.
It is the goal of a Titan mission to explore and investigate these exotic and inviting worlds, to understand their natures and assess the possibilities of habitability in this system so distant from our home world.