NASA Spacecraft Buzzes Saturn's Largest Moon Titan for 100th Time

Saturn Moon Titan's Layers: Cassini Mission
This artist’s concept shows a possible model of Titan’s internal structure that incorporates data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. As of March 6, 2014, Cassini has flown by Titan, Saturn's largest moon, 100 times since the probe's arrival around the planet in 2004. (Image credit: A. D. Fortes/UCL/STFC)

A far-flung NASA space probe flying around Saturn zipped past the ringed planet's biggest moon for the 100th time on Thursday (March 6).

The Cassini spacecraft made its closest approach to the hazy moon Titan at 12:45 p.m. EST on Earth (5:45 GMT), according to officials at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

During the historic flyby, Cassini got within 933 miles (1,500 kilometers) of Titan's mysterious surface. [Amazing Photos: Titan, Saturn's Largest Moon]

NASA's Cassini spacecraft exploring Saturn and its moon has reached a major milestone, the 100th flyby of Titan, largest Saturnian moon. This image is a special logo made to commemorate the March 6, 2014 mission milestone at Saturn. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Larger than Mercury in size, Titan has some compelling similarities to Earth. It's only other body in our solar system with an atmosphere and liquid on its surface. (It's also thought to be one of the best possible places to search for extraterrestrial life.)

JPL officials say Titan, where temperatures can drop to minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit (94 kelvins), is like early Earth in a deep freeze. It may even harbor ice volcanoes that spew water ice and hydrocarbons.

For 10 years, Cassini's images have helped scientists peer beneath the moon's orange, nitrogen-rich smog to see amazing features on the face of Titan like vast lakes made of methane and ethane that are larger than North America's Great Lakes and continually replenished by hydrocarbon rain showers.

Titan, the mysterious cloud-covered moon of Saturn, is the ringed planet's largest moon. Find out the facts about Titan's heavy atmosphere, lakes of hydrocarbons and the possibility of life. (Image credit: Karl Tate, contributor)

With Cassini data, scientists have detected an ocean composed of water and ammonia below Titan's icy crust. Using radar data from the spacecraft, researchers have also determined that Ligeia Mare, the second largest sea on Titan, is about 525 feet (160 meters) deep.

The flyby comes during a change in Titan's long seasons. Spring is finally giving way to summer in in Titan's northern hemisphere for the first time since Cassini arrived at Saturn in 2004. This means icy clouds are retreating and revealing and never-before-seen views of the lakes and seas at the moon's north pole. Near-infrared images of the region could give scientists clues about the surrounding terrain, JPL officials say.

Because Titan harbors water and organic materials, scientists think it could be a potential host of alien life forms.

"Methane is not only in the atmosphere, but probably in the crust," Jonathan Lunine, a scientist on the Cassini mission at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., explained in a statement from JPL. "It's a hint there are organics not only in Titan's air and on the surface, but even in the deep interior, where liquid water exists as well. Organics are the building blocks of life, and if they are in contact with liquid water, there could be a chance of finding some form of life."

Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL, said the potential for like on Titan is twofold because of its two types of liquid bodies.

"Could a unique form of methane-based life exist in Titan's liquid lakes and seas?" Spilker asked in a statement. With a global ocean of liquid water beneath its icy crust, could life exist in Titan's subsurface ocean?"

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Megan Gannon
Live Science Contributor
Megan has been writing for Live Science and since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.