The Unexpected Journey from Tolkien to Titan

Posted on Fri, August 3, 2018
  • by: Gabrielle Barone, Digital Experiences intern

Bilbo Baggins journeyed many places in Middle-Earth, but it turns out his quest extends to other planets, too.

The Lord of the Rings was published in 1954, adding to the story that J.R.R. Tolkien began with The Hobbit in 1937 and starting a pop culture craze that led to movie adaptations, Comic-Con costumes, and even the names of landmarks on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. 

Six of Titan’s hills are named after central characters in the series: Bilbo, Handir, Nimloth, Arwen and Faramir Colles were all named in 2012. (“Colles” isn’t another Tolkien reference: it’s actually a term that planetary experts use to refer to hills.) Naming a hill after Gandalf wasn’t approved until July 2015, a full 360 years after Titan was discovered in 1655.

Just as “colles” translates to hills, the mountains of Titan are called “montes.” Erebor, Doom, Irensaga, Mindolluin, Misty, Mithrim and Taniquetil Montes, all named for the series, were approved in 2012.

Tolkien’s Misty Mountains have nothing on Titan, however. According to Emily Mart, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Air and Space Museum’s Center for Earth a Planetary Studies, Titan has “a really thick, dynamic atmosphere.” Because of the extremely thick atmosphere, the Cassini spacecraft’s images of Titan’s topography were taken using radar data. Radar technology uses wavelengths to “see” through the atmosphere. The “pictures” of the surface that the radar returned showed bright and dark regions, which correspond to surface roughness and let experts see where hills and mountains are located.

Colorized View of Titan from Cassini

This colorized view of Titan, taken by Cassini on July 3, 2004 after the first flyby of Titan. The purple haze indicates the upper atmosphere of Titan.

Naming those hills and mountains is another process in and of itself, overseen by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), Martin said.   

Why was Titan’s topography named for something so solidly based on (middle) Earth? Anyone may suggest a name for consideration by the IAU. Themes are often created, which is why more than one name from a book or story will appear. For example, naming the moon “Titan” is a reference to the gods in Greek mythology, just as planets like “Mars,” “Venus,” and “Jupiter” are based on Roman mythology.

Martin believes that Titan’s geography is named rather than numbered because it follows how we classify geography on Earth. 

 “We don’t have continent one through seven. They actually have names, and names, I think, mean something to people,” Martin said. “From the very first days of planetary exploration on the Moon and on Mars, they’ve been giving things names.”

When Titan’s particular landmarks were named, The Lord of the Rings series had translated from bookshelves to movie screens for a new generation. It just goes to show how far an “unexpected journey” can take you.

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