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We might obtain some clues about the nature of Titan by examining the two major worlds in the outer solar system-Jupiter and Saturn. Both have a general reddish or brownish coloration. That is, the upper layer of clouds that we see from the Earth has this hue primarily. Something in the atmosphere and clouds of these planets is strongly absorbing blue and ultraviolet light, so that the light that is reflected back to us is primarily red. The outer solar system, in fact, has a number of objects that are remarkably red. Although we have no color photographs of Titan because it is 800 million miles away and has an angular size smaller than the Galilean satellites of Jupiter, photoelectric studies reveal that it is, in fact, very red. Astronomers who thought about the problem once believed that Titan was red for the same reason that Mars is red: a rusty surface. But then the reason for Titan’s red color would be different from the reason for Jupiter’s and Saturn’s, because we do not see to a solid surface on those planets.

In 1944 Gerard Kuiper detected spectroscopically an atmosphere of methane around Titan-the first satellite found to have an atmosphere. Since then, the methane observations have been confirmed, and at least moderately suggestive evidence for the presence of molecular hydrogen has been provided by Lawrence Trafton of the University of Texas.

Since we know the amount of gas necessary to produce the observed spectral absorption features, and we know from its mass and radius the surface gravity of Titan, we can deduce the minimum atmospheric pressure. We find it is something like 10 millibars, about one percent of the Earth’s atmospheric pressure-a pressure that exceeds that of Mars. Titan has the most Earth-like atmospheric pressure in the solar system.

Not only the best, but the only visual telescopic observations of Titan have been made by Audouin Dollfus at the Meudon Observatory in France. These are hand drawings done at the telescope during moments of atmospheric steadiness. From the variable patches that he observed, Dollfus concluded that things are happening on Titan that do not correlate with the satellite’s rotation period. (Titan is thought always to face Saturn, as our Moon does the Earth.) Dollfus guessed that there might be clouds, at least of a patchy sort, on Titan.

Our knowledge of Titan has made a number of substantial quantum jumps forward in recent years. Astronomers have successfully obtained the polarization curve of small objects. The idea is that initially unpolarized sunlight falls on Titan, say, and is polarized on reflection. The polarization is detected by a device similar in principle to, but more sophisticated and sensitive than, “polaroid” sunglasses. The amount of polarization is measured as Titan goes through a small range of phases-between “full” Titan and slightly “gibbous” Titan. The resulting polarization curve, when compared to laboratory polarization curves, gives information on the size and composition of the material responsible for the polarization.

The first polarization observations of Titan, made by Joseph Veverka, indicated that the sunlight reflected back from Titan is most likely reflected off clouds and not off a solid surface. Apparently there is on Titan a surface and a lower atmosphere that we do not see; an opaque cloud deck and an overlying atmosphere, both of which we do see; and an occasional patchy cloud above that. Since Titan appears red, and we view it at the cloud deck, there must, according to this argument, be red clouds on Titan.

Additional support for this concept comes from the extremely low amount of ultraviolet light reflected from Titan, as measured by the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory. The only way to keep Titan’s ultraviolet brightness small is to have the ultraviolet absorbing stuff high up in the atmosphere. Otherwise Rayleigh scattering by the atmospheric molecules themselves would make Titan bright in the ultraviolet. (Rayleigh scattering is the preferential scattering of blue rather than red light, which is responsible for blue skies on Earth.)

But material that absorbs in the ultraviolet and violet appears red in reflected light. So there are two separate lines of evidence (or three, if we believe the hand drawings) for an extensive cloud cover on Titan. What do we mean by extensive? More than 90 percent of Titan must be cloaked in clouds to match the polarization data. Titan seems to be covered by dense red clouds.

A second astonishing development was inaugurated in 1971 when D. A. Allen of Cambridge University and T. L. Murdock of the University of Minnesota found that the observed infrared emission from Titan at a wavelength of 10 to 14 microns is more than twice what is expected from solar heating. Titan is too small to have a significant internal energy source like Jupiter or Saturn. The only explanation seemed to be the greenhouse effect in which the surface temperature rises until the infrared radiation trickling out just balances the absorbed visible radiation coming in. It is the greenhouse effect that keeps the surface temperature of the Earth above freezing and the temperature of Venus at 480°C.

But what could cause a Titanian greenhouse effect? It is unlikely to be carbon dioxide and water vapor as on Earth and Venus, because these gases should be largely frozen out on Titan. I have calculated that a few hundred millibars of hydrogen (1,000 millibars is the total sea-level atmospheric pressure on Earth) would provide an adequate greenhouse effect. Since this is more than the amount of hydrogen observed, the clouds would have to be opaque at certain short wavelengths and more nearly transparent at certain longer wavelengths. James Pollack, at NASA’s Ames Research Center, has calculated that a few hundred millibars of methane might also be adequate and, moreover, might explain some of the details of the infrared emission spectrum of Titan. This large amount of methane would also have to hide under the clouds. Both greenhouse models have the virtue of invoking only gases thought to exist on Titan; of course, both gases might play a role.

An alternative model of the Titan atmosphere was proposed by the late Robert Danielson and his colleagues at Princeton University. They suggest that small quantities of simple hydrocarbons-such as ethane, ethylene and acetylene-which have been observed in the upper atmosphere of Titan absorb ultraviolet light from the Sun and heat the upper atmosphere. It is then the hot upper atmosphere and not the surface that we see in the infrared. On this model there need be no enigmatically warm surface, no greenhouse effect, and no atmospheric pressure of hundreds of millibars.

Which view is correct? At the present time no one knows. The situation is reminiscent of studies of Venus in the early 1960s when the planet’s radio-brightness temperature was known to be high, but whether the emission was from a hot surface or a hot region of the atmosphere was (appropriately) hotly debated. Since radio waves pass through all but the densest atmospheres and clouds, the Titan problem might be resolved if we had a reliable measure of the radio-brightness temperature of the satellite. The first such measurement was performed by Frank Briggs of Cornell with the giant interferometer of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. Briggs finds a surface temperature of Titan of −140°C with an uncertainty of 45°. The temperature in the absence of a greenhouse effect is expected to be about −185°C. Briggs’s observations therefore seem to suggest a fairly sizable greenhouse effect and a dense atmosphere, but the probable error of the measurements is still so large as to permit the zero greenhouse case.

Subsequent observations by two other radio astronomical groups give values both higher and lower than Briggs’s results. The higher range of temperatures, astonishingly, even approaches temperatures in cold regions of the Earth. The observational situation, like the atmosphere of Titan, seems very murky. The problem could be resolved if we could measure the size of the solid surface of Titan by radar (optical measurements give us the distance from cloudtop to cloudtop). The problem may have to await studies by the Voyager mission, which is scheduled to send two sophisticated spacecraft by Titan-one very close to it-in 1981.



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