Christiaan Huygens attributed his 1655 discovery of Saturn’s largest moon Titan partly to “the quality of his telescope and partly to luck.” And now it seems luck has struck again in the latest Titan discovery: the first ever directly-observed extra-terrestrial liquid drops.
In examining the data from the Huygens probe, which zipped through the atmosphere to a final squishy landing in 2005, scientists have noticed a discrepancy between two photos captured moments apart. The splodges don’t amount to much visually, but they’re highlighted with tiny arrows in the image here. And they appear to be liquid methane that’s condensed out of the air of the moon onto the cold metal surface of the probe.
Initially the spots were dismissed as artifacts in the sensor caused by cosmic rays, but upon reconsideration it looks like the spots really do represent methane.
And what does that mean? Scientifically it agrees with the theory that liquid methane exists plentifully on Titan’s surface, but since the condensation was artificially induced, it doesn’t add much to the debate on whether Titan suffers methane rain storms. Nevertheless, the direct observation of the first ever non-terrestrial liquid drops is an exciting reminder that there’s still plenty of discoveries to be made in space.