EPSC-DPS 2011/09: Piecing together a global colour map of Titan


Ref. PN: EPSC11/09 

Titanic Jigsaw Challenge:  Piecing together a global colour map of Saturn’s largest moon

1-titan_ortho_small.jpgAn international team led by the University of Nantes has pieced together images gathered over six years by the Cassini mission to create a global mosaic of the surface of Titan. The global maps and animations of Saturn’s largest moon are being presented by Stéphane Le Mouélic at the EPSC-DPS Joint Meeting 2011 in Nantes, France on Tuesday 4th October.

The team has compiled all the infrared images acquired by the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) during Cassini’s first seventy flybys of Titan. Fitting the pieces of the puzzle together is a painstaking task.  The images must be corrected for differences in the illuminating conditions and each image is filtered on a pixel-by-pixel basis to screen out atmospheric distortions. Titan is veiled by a thick, opaque atmosphere composed mainly of nitrogen.  It has clouds of methane and ethane and there is increasing evidence for methane rain. Only a few specific infrared wavelengths can penetrate the cloud and haze to provide a window down to Titan’s surface. An exotic frozen world with many Earth-like geological features has progressively emerged from darkness.

Stéphane Le Mouélic explains: “As Cassini is orbiting Saturn and not Titan, we can observe Titan only once a month on average. The surface of Titan is therefore revealed year after year, as pieces of the puzzle are progressively put together.  Deriving a final map with no seams is challenging due to the effects of the atmosphere – clouds, mist etc. – and due to the changing geometries of observation between each flyby.”

Cassini has made 78 flybys of Titan since it arrived in orbit around Saturn in July 2004. A further 48 flybys are planned up to 2017. On flybys to date, VIMS has only had a few opportunities to observe Titan with a high spatial resolution. This means that the global map currently shows some regions of Titan in more detail than others. 

“We have created the maps using low resolution images as a background with the high resolution data on top. In the few opportunities where we have VIMS imagery from the closest approach, we can show details as low as 500 metres per pixel. An example of this is from the 47th flyby, which allowed the observation of the site where the Huygens descent module landed. This observation is a key one as it might help us to bridge the gap between the ground truth provided by Huygens, and ongoing global mapping from orbit, which will continue up to 2017.”

In addition to improving the spatial coverage, future mapping will allow the observation of seasonal changes in both the atmosphere and the surface. As spring comes to the northern hemispheres of Saturn and its moons, some areas are only now coming into view.

“Lakes in Titan’s northern hemisphere were first discovered by the RADAR instrument in 2006, appearing as completely smooth areas. However, we had to wait up to June 2010 to obtain the first infrared images of the northern lakes, emerging progressively from the northern winter darkness,” says Le Mouélic. “The infrared observations provide the additional opportunity to investigate the composition of the liquids within the lakes area. Liquid ethane has already been identified by this means.”


An animation of the mosaic can be found at:


Figure 1 : Global mosaic of VIMS infrared images acquired during the nominal and equinox Cassini mission. Differences in composition translate into subtle differences of colours in this mosaic, revealing the diversity of terrains on Titan, such as the brownish equatorial dune fields or the bright elevated terrains. (Colour coding : Red=5 µm, Green=2.0 µm, Blue=1.27 µm). Credits JPL/NASA/Univ. of Arizona/CNRS/LPGNantes

Figure 2 : Observations of the northern seas of Titan by VIMS (left and center) and by Radar (right). Credits JPL/NASA/Univ. of Arizona/CNRS/LPGNantes

Figure 3 : VIMS observations of the Huygens landing site, plotted over a radar background. The surface seen by Huygens is shown in the inset. Credits JPL/NASA/Univ. of Arizona/CNRS/LPGNantes


Stéphane Le Mouélic     
Ingénieur de Recherche CNRS
Université de Nantes/UMR6112
Laboratoire de Planétologie et Géodynamique
Tel: +33 (0) 2 51 12 54 65
Fax: +33 (0) 2 51 12 52 68
E-mail : stephane.lemouelic@univ-nantes.fr 



The EPSC-DPS Joint Meeting 2011 represents the first cooperation between the European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) organised by the Europlanet Research Infrastructure and the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society. The meeting is being organised in association with the European Geosciences Union and with the support of the Université de Nantes. More than 1800 abstracts for oral presentations and posters have been submitted for the meeting.
EPSC-DPS 2011 provides a platform for the worldwide planetary sciences community to exchange and present results, develop new ideas and network. It has a distinctively interactive style, with an extensive mix of talks, workshops and posters, intended to provide a stimulating environment for the community to meet. The meeting covers the entire scope of the planetary sciences.
Details of the congress can be found at the official website:
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The Europlanet Research Infrastructure is a major (€6 million) programme co-funded by the European Union under the Seventh Framework Programme of the European Commission.
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The Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) is the largest organization of professional planetary scientists in the world. The DPS was formed in 1968 as a sub-organization within the AAS devoted to solar system and extrasolar planet research. Today it is the largest special interest Division of the AAS.
DPS Website: http://dps.aas.org/