The Forecast on Titan: Pretty Darn Good

There are hundreds of millions of miles of the void of space between climate scientists and Saturn's frigid moon Titan. But in spite of the distance, the scientists nearly got it right when they made a model of the moon's climate. The only thing off was the timing.

Scientists found that the way clouds are distributed around Titan mostly matches their models. Contrary to predictions, however, clouds still have not dissipated from the southern hemisphere as the moon's fall season approaches.

?Titan?s clouds don?t move with the seasons exactly as we expected,? Sebastien Rodriguez of the University of Paris Diderot, who works with the Cassini mission, said in a statement.

The new images are from Cassini, the probe that has observed Saturn since 2004. In that time Cassini has peered through Titan?s cloud cover and at the clouds themselves. In a renewed effort this year, the probe has gathered a new wealth of information about the moon in six flybys since February 7. The next flyby is scheduled for June 6, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. reported.

Clouds gather densely over the moon's southern hemisphere during its summer, and Cassini has shown that the cloudy skies persist at least into the early fall. They are expected to clear by August.

?It looks like Indian summer on Earth, even if the mechanisms are radically different on Titan," Rodriguez said. He revised Titan's early Autumn forecast, predicting warmer and wetter weather than what the models have called for.

Warm is a subjective term on Titan, where the average temperature is -290 degrees Fahrenheit (-179 degrees Celsius). One measure of the cold there is its volcanoes. While those on Earth spew molten rock, liquid water streams from Titan's volcanoes.

In spite of the brisk weather, Titan, is one of the most Earth-like worlds scientists have found to date, NASA reports. It has a thick atmosphere and the right chemistry to support some forms of life. It actually resembles a frozen version of Earth, several billion years before organisms here began pumping oxygen into our atmosphere.

Cassini has revealed a surface carved by rivers and lakes of liquid ethane and methane (the main component of natural gas). The liquids evaporate and condense in the atmosphere like water does here on Earth. Also like Earth's water, the ethane and methane form clouds and rain from Titan's sky.

In this year's series of flybys, Cassini is monitoring Titan's atmosphere and surface for signs of seasonal change. And NASA scientists say they await new data that could confirm the presence of a liquid ocean beneath the moon's surface.