An artist's conception of the Cassini-Huygens probe descending through a lightning storm in Titan's thick nitrogen atmosphere.
updated 6/6/2011 12:44:38 PM ET 2011-06-06T16:44:38

Future missions to the Saturn moon Titan may look for lightning in a novel way — by searching for its rumbling companion, thunder.

Detecting thunder on the frigid, distant moon won't be as simple as pointing a microphone and reading the signal. Sound waves are shaped and altered by the material they travel through, and Titan's air is much different than Earth's.

To help identify any possible signals, two teams of scientists modeled what the sound wave for a thunderclap would look like where lightning touches down on Titan, and how it would shift after traveling through the moon's atmosphere.

Different atmospheres make (different) waves
Nitrogen dominates the frosty air of Titan, the only moon in the solar system known to have a significant atmosphere. Methane clouds cross the planet, periodically raining liquid hydrocarbons onto the surface.

Many scientists hope that such storms bring with them lightning. The electrical discharge creates pockets of high temperatures that could allow the creation of complicated molecules. These, in turn, could have implications for the possibility of life on the moon.

The characteristics that make Titan's atmosphere so different from Earth also make it, from an acoustical standpoint, better.

"Sound carries farther on Titan than on Earth, or even Mars or Venus," Andri Petculescu, who worked on both of the recent studies, told

Because of this, a detector could hear thunder rumble from relatively far away. But it would have to be created specifically for Titan.

"You can't bring any microphone off the shelf, designed for Earth, and assume it would work on Titan without modifications," Petculescu said. "Future missions would have microphones tailored for Titan's conditions."

Researchers would also have to keep in mind that lightning isn't the only possible source of loud noises on Titan. Petculescu pointed out that a meteorite hitting the surface or detonating in the air would boom loudly, much like thunder. The need to identify the distinguishing features of thunder is critical.

The two studies are part of a larger project to determine how thunder sounds on Titan, and to develop an accurate soundscape for the moon. Scientific documentaries, planetarium shows and even science fiction movies could utilize such a tool to accurately replicate the sounds heard by an astronaut standing on the surface of Titan, or various other planetary environments.

Petculescu described the various noises that could conceivably be heard on Titan, from the cascading of a methane creek to the rumble of thunder in the distance.

Scientists presented the two related projects at the May meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Seattle.

Exploring Titan
Much of what scientists know about Titan comes from NASA's Cassini satellite, which studies the moon as part of its path around Saturn. In 2005, the Huygens probe, released from Cassini, took 2 1/2 hours to pass through the atmosphere and touch down on the surface of Titan.

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The instruments on board Huygens were designed to study the surrounding atmosphere. The data was relayed from the probe to Cassini and back to Earth.

Because scientists knew about the potential for clouds — and thus lightning — Huygens was built with the idea that it might, in fact, be struck on the way in.

Neither Huygens nor Cassini (which is still sending information back to Earth) has detected lightning. However, NASA is presently exploring the possibility of another trip to the moon. The Titan Mare Explorer (TiME) is one of three missions considered for launch in 2016. If selected, it will attempt to land in and float on one of the large methane seas on the surface of Titan.

Unfortunately, the current proposal for TiME does not plan to include the equipment necessary to search for thunder. Studying the storms around the seas, however, will help scientists to understand more about how the weather cycle affects the moon.

The selection process will continue over the upcoming months, as teams continue to demonstrate progress.

Follow for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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