Exploration of Saturn’s moon Titan: A hydrocarbon world in our Solar System
Saturn’s moon Titan is the most Earth-like world in the Outer Solar System. Just like Earth, Titan has a thick nitrogen atmosphere. The Cassini spacecraft discovered that underneath Titan’s haze layers are familiar features like dunes, mountains, canyons, plateaus, rivers, lakes and seas. But unlike Earth, frigid Titan’s rainfall is methane, the lakes and seas are liquid hydrocarbons, the dunes and plateaus are organic sediments, and the mountains are made of rock-hard water ice. We recently released a global geomorphological map of Titan that identified the different terrains and features on Titan. We are now using this map to understand the geological processes that occur on this organic world.
Michael Malaska is a scientist in the Planetary Ices Group at NASA/JPL. His career path to JPL is atypical. He obtained his undergraduate degree in chemistry from MIT, his PhD in chemistry from UC Berkeley, and performed postdoctoral research in neurochemistry at Mayo Clinic Jacksonville in Florida. After a 20 year career in the pharmaceutical industry inventing new drugs, the images sent down by the Cassini spacecraft ignited his passion in planetary science, and he went from being an interested amateur, to a part-time volunteer researcher, to finally changing his career to planetary science and astrobiology. His research program combines laboratory experimentation, spacecraft remote sensing, and field geology to explore planetary processes. His current work includes mapping Titan’s surface, examining evidence for dissolution geology (Titan karst) in labyrinth terrains on Titan, and geology of cryogenic organic materials. He is also the Deputy Principle Investigator of the multi-institition NASA Astrobiology Institute node for investigating the possibility of life on Titan.