Saturn’s Moons

Where Oceans, Impacts, and Mysteries Reign

By Google Arts & Culture

Mackenzie White

Tethys, From the collection of: NASA
Titan surface, From the collection of: NASA
Enceladus, From the collection of: NASA
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Saturn’s 82 moons include some of the most unique environments in the solar system, ranging from the thick atmosphere of Titan to the explosive plumes on Enceladus. 

Voyager Missions (1980)LIFE Photo Collection

Their sizes vary as much as their terrain, with massive moons like Titan measuring larger than planet Mercury and others spanning only a few kilometers wide.

Odd World (2005-09-29) by NASA/JPL/Space Science InstituteNASA

The larger moons generally have a familiar spherical shape, while the smaller satellites take all kinds of wonky forms. Some of the most infamous shapes include a long sponge (Hyperion), a meatball (Janus), and a walnut (Pan).

Cassini at Saturn Bow Shock Artist Concept (2013-02-19) by ESANASA

Most of what we know about Saturn’s moons comes from spacecraft data collected during the Voyager, Pioneer, and Cassini missions.

Cassini Over the Top Illustration (2017-04-04) by NASA/JPL-CaltechNASA

While Voyager and Pioneer flybys during the 1970s and 80s revolutionized our understanding of the satellites, Cassini was the only spacecraft to orbit Saturn, gathering years of invaluable data and unexpected sightings.

The Colors of Tethys I (2015-07-29) by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science InstituteNASA

For example, the mission discovered the atmospheres of Dione and Rhea, the static charge of Hyperion, and the red arcs of Tethys, along with countless other findings.

Layers of Titan Artist Concept (2014-03-15) by A. D. Fortes/UCL/STFCNASA

Two of Saturn’s large moons, Titan and Enceladus, are currently high priorities for future missions thanks to their unique potential to harbor life.

Titan is the second-largest moon in our solar system and the only one with a thick atmosphere.

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Titan surfaceNASA

It is also the only moon upon which scientists have identified liquids (methane and ethane) on the surface in the form of rivers, lakes, and oceans. Current research is actively investigating if foreign forms of methane-based life could exist in these fluids.

Floating Ice on Titan Lakes? (2013-01-08) by NASA/JPL-Caltech/USGSNASA

However, these bodies of hydrocarbons aren’t the only source of liquid on Titan. Beneath the moon’s icy crust hides a global ocean made primarily of water. The conditions in the water may support (microbial) life as we understand it.

Ligeia Mare on Saturn's Moon Titan (2013-05-22)NASA

While Titan may be one of the most hospitable places in our solar system, it would still be an exceptionally challenging place for humans to live.

Global Color Mosaic of Triton (1998-06-04) by NASA/JPL/USGSNASA

Though its atmosphere and gravity would allow a human to walk around on the surface without a spacesuit, the environment is extremely harsh, with temperatures plunging to minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 179 Celsius) and no oxygen in the surrounding air.

Cassini Flies Through The Enceladus Plume (Artist Concept) (2016-04-20) by NASA/JPL-CaltechNASA

Another exciting potential habitat for life is the mysterious moon Enceladus, which may have active hydrothermal vents supplying its jets at the south pole. 

Global Ocean on Enceladus Artist Rendering (2015-09-15) by NASA/JPL-CaltechNASA

Like Titan, it has an external icy shell likely covering a subsurface ocean. Learn more about the mysteries of Enceladus here.

However, Enceladus’ mysterious plumes are unlike any other lunar features in the solar system and could support complex chemistry.

A Brighter Moon (2015-11-16) by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science InstituteNASA

The moons of Saturn hold limitless mysteries and promise to keep inspiring, surprising, and delighting scientists as we continue to explore these extraordinary worlds.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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