A world where volcanoes spew methane ice, the sky is a dusky orange and, one day, robot explorers will sail dark hydrocarbon seas that glint from orbit. Sounds extra-terrestrial? It is: this is Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, and one of the most incredible places in the solar system. Sounds alien? Maybe to some of us, but this world is one that Ellen Stofan knows intimately.
A planetary geologist, Ellen uses her knowledge of geological processes on Earth to understand the systems at work on other worlds, where some things are familiar, others very odd indeed. Titan is the only other place where we’ve found a cycle of liquid precipitation and erosion; though instead of water, it’s methane and ethane clouds, rain and lakes.
Ellen is one of the foremost experts on the surfaces of other worlds, and not only Titan. She worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory for many years on different projects, including the radar instruments for probes to map landsurfaces on Venus and Mars.
She led the Titan Mare Explorer project, a visionary proposal for a probe that could float and explore the methane lakes Ligeia and Kraken Maria on this small but geologically active world. Although the project has not yet been funded by NASA, there is a chance it may be selected in the near future.
Ellen isn’t waiting around though: she’s just been announced as NASA’s new Chief Scientist, an incredibly senior position. Her varied research and career accomplishments show that geology isn’t about looking down at your feet, it’s about the exploration of whole worlds- ours and others.
Written and posted by Becky (@LeMoustier)
More reading: Ellen’s Nature paper on Titan’s lakes (£), research presented at the 2013 European Planetary Science Congress, wikipedia page on Titan’s lakes, Emily Lakdawalla (@elakdawalla) on the shapes of rivers on Titan, Sarah Hörst (@PlanetDr) on her research on the atmosphere of Titan.