Titan's "Tropical Lake" Excites Scientists

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Titan's "Tropical Lake" Excites Scientists

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New observations suggest that Saturn's biggest moon might have a hidden secret.

Titan, the largest of Saturn's 62 moons, is known as being the only object in our solar system other than Earth to possess a hydrological system that revolves around a cycle of rain and evaporation. This means that while seas and other large bodies of liquid are expected to form around the moon's poles, its arid equatorial belt should remain nice and dry as liquid evaporates from its surface and heads back to the poles.

However, as scientists investigated information captured by the Cassini spacecraft between 2004 and 2008, they discovered that this supposedly "dry" desert area is positively festooned with what look like puddles, ponds, marshy areas, and even a suspected lake. In this week's Nature, one group has put forward a promising theory to explain how these potential bodies of liquid have managed to sustain themselves, and it contains all kinds of interesting implications.

Led by Caitlin Griffith, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, the researchers posit that Titan's mysterious desert ponds are being fed by "subsurface oases" of liquid methane. This makes sense for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the well-documented and large supply of liquid methane floating around Titan's poles.

Having such large stocks of the liquid hydrocarbon floating around beneath the planet's surface throws up all kinds of interesting ideas, not least of which is what its prescence might mean for the development of complex molecules, and perhaps even life forms, on the moon. Methane, while generally unfriendly and often fairly flammable, is composed of one carbon and four hydrogen atoms, essential elements in the building blocks of life.

Astrobiologist Jonathan Lunine of Cornell University, while not involved in this particular piece of research, is excited about the prospect. "There may be organic chemical processes that occur in liquid hydrocarbons that could lead to compounds analogous to proteins and information-carrying molecules," he said, commenting on the work. "There might be a kind of life that works in liquid hydrocarbons."

"There's a place on Titan named Xanadu, and if you go back to the Coleridge poem on Xanadu, he talks about 'caverns measureless to man'," continued Lunine, adding that he'd "love" to find such caverns filled with hydrocarbons under the surface of Titan.

Lunine and Griffiths are both part of the team proposing that NASA send a mission to Titan to look for signs of such complex molecules in the moon's northern seas. Named the Titan Mare Explorer (TiME), the craft's gathering mission would last for three months. NASA will apparently announce whether or not it will run the mission "soon."

In the meantime, we'll just have to wait to see if Lunine's musings on the potential for new forms of life born of hydrocarbons hold any water (or liquid methane). It'll also be interesting to see what implications the results of the research could hold for potential human involvement in Titan. While it looks generally inhospitable, it is bigger than Mercury and would take significantly longer to kill us than that planet would (for example, we'd suffocate from the lack of oxygen rather than boil to death. Tasty). Plus, I heard from this guy from three million years in the future that he spent some time on Titan and Ganymede when he was younger, so who knows? Good luck to the TiME mission and its search for hydrocarbon-based potential life, in any case.

Source: Nature

Image: Wikipedia

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Guess Titan can be second choice if colonising Mars doesnt go to plan.

For some reason I always think about Cowboy Bebop when I think about Titan.

I'm creaming my pants at the thought of claiming Titan's hydrocarbon deposits. Any company/individual who did that would probably be the richest group/guy ever.

There's a Titan Maximum reference in this...I just know it.

CAPTCHA: wishy-washy

Oh, leave Palmer alone, Captcha!

CosmicCommander:
I'm creaming my pants at the thought of claiming Titan's hydrocarbon deposits. Any company/individual who did that would probably be the richest group/guy ever.

Believe it or not, we already have laws against that.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_heritage_of_mankind

The reason why we have this law is because of the Cold War and the whole space race. Both sides were worried about what would happen if they lose. They thought the other side would be able to claim all the riches from space. So they made that law. Of course, once we're actually able to go up there and exploit all those resources, I have a feeling that law will change drastically.

Hevva:
While it looks generally inhospitable, it is bigger than Mercury and would take significantly longer to kill us than that planet would (for example, we'd suffocate from the lack of oxygen rather than boil to death. Tasty)

You forgot to mention that given the planets surface temperature of -180C and an atmosphere 50% denser than our own it takes about only 25-28 minutes for the human body to completely cystalise into an ice cube.

CAPTCHA: om nom nom - It knows your flavour of demise.

Always thought there was something Erie about that moon.

GamemasterAnthony:
There's a Titan Maximum reference in this...I just know it.

CAPTCHA: wishy-washy

Oh, leave Palmer alone, Captcha!

Hevva:
This means that while seas and other large bodies of water are expected to form around the moon's poles, its arid equatorial belt should remain nice and dry as liquid evaporates from its surface and heads back to the poles.

Bodies of water? On Titan? Not with a surface temperature of only around 90K, I think.

Adam Jensen:

CosmicCommander:
I'm creaming my pants at the thought of claiming Titan's hydrocarbon deposits. Any company/individual who did that would probably be the richest group/guy ever.

Believe it or not, we already have laws against that.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_heritage_of_mankind

The reason why we have this law is because of the Cold War and the whole space race. Both sides were worried about what would happen if they lose. They thought the other side would be able to claim all the riches from space. So they made that law. Of course, once we're actually able to go up there and exploit all those resources, I have a feeling that law will change drastically.

How can they arrest me once I have all the...

SPACE OIL

...could it be?

image

A lot of cool stuff is happening regarding aliens recently.

Redingold:

Hevva:
This means that while seas and other large bodies of water are expected to form around the moon's poles, its arid equatorial belt should remain nice and dry as liquid evaporates from its surface and heads back to the poles.

Bodies of water? On Titan? Not with a surface temperature of only around 90K, I think.

Not bodies of water. Far too cold for that. Bodies of liquid would be a more apt description. Those liquids being methane, ethane, and other various hydrocarbons.

I just watched a "The Universe" on Titan the other day. Fascinating stuff.

RonHiler:

Redingold:

Hevva:
This means that while seas and other large bodies of water are expected to form around the moon's poles, its arid equatorial belt should remain nice and dry as liquid evaporates from its surface and heads back to the poles.

Bodies of water? On Titan? Not with a surface temperature of only around 90K, I think.

Not bodies of water. Far too cold for that. Bodies of liquid would be a more apt description. Those liquids being methane, ethane, and other various hydrocarbons.

I just watched a "The Universe" on Titan the other day. Fascinating stuff.

Yes, I know that. I was pointing out that the OP wrote bodies of water.

Can't wait to hear how this turns out.

Come on NASA, make this mission a go.

I wonder how well jetskis work on methane lakes...

Redingold:

RonHiler:

Redingold:

Bodies of water? On Titan? Not with a surface temperature of only around 90K, I think.

Not bodies of water. Far too cold for that. Bodies of liquid would be a more apt description. Those liquids being methane, ethane, and other various hydrocarbons.

I just watched a "The Universe" on Titan the other day. Fascinating stuff.

Yes, I know that. I was pointing out that the OP wrote bodies of water.

The OP didn't mean to, thanks for pointing it out! Will fix now.

So NASA scientist get turned on by wet moons...

creeps...

gigastar:
Guess Titan can be second choice if colonising Mars doesnt go to plan.

Nah man, Europa is where it's at.
A water ice crust and the possibility of liquid oceans underneath.

interesting fact: due to the atmosphere and the smaller amount of gravity, it could be possible to have man-powered flight on titan. So pretty much astronauts could slap on a pair of wings to their arms, flap them, and not look like a complete idiot.

Months later:

"GAIS, we confirmed it. There's life!"

"holy crap holy crap!"

"there are microorganisms"

"holy crap!"

"it'll take millions of years of evolution for it to become intelligent!"

"...."

" >_> "

I really want to blow it up now that I know it is covered in flamable gas

Time? Is there a rule that every scientific thingimabob project has to make a coherent word when abbrevated i wonder...

Soawesomesoawesomesoawesome.
Oh please let their be life... even the mere possibilities for new and complex lifeforms to evolve...
Mainly so we can fly over there and totally fuck with them when they become advanced by leaving just stuff around.

antipunt:
Months later:

"GAIS, we confirmed it. There's life!"

"holy crap holy crap!"

"there are microorganisms"

"holy crap!"

"it'll take millions of years of evolution for it to become intelligent!"

"...."

" >_> "

I think you're missing the point of finding life in space. It isn't about finding aliens that fly about in space craft and shoot ray-guns, it's about confirming that Earth isn't the only planet able to host life. Once we have that settled then we can focus on intelligent life.

BlindWorg:
Time? Is there a rule that every scientific thingimabob project has to make a coherent word when abbrevated i wonder...

It looks sexier on funding applications, basically.

antipunt:
Months later:

"GAIS, we confirmed it. There's life!"

"holy crap holy crap!"

"there are microorganisms"

"holy crap!"

"it'll take millions of years of evolution for it to become intelligent!"

"...."

" >_> "

Doesn't matter. The biggest thing is, if life independently arose in two different places in our one solar system, in very different environments, then it must be EVERYWHERE in the universe. We don't really know how common life is, because you can't calculate odds if you have a sample size of one; if there is or was life anywhere else in the solar system, though, then that would mean there would have to be billions of living planets in our galaxy.

It would also be a bonanza for biologists and for science in general, of course.

Of the several things that was interesting about this article, one was a bit personal for me; a few hours ago, I read that Coleridge poem for the first time in over five years... Love coincidences that for a few microseconds make me wonder if they're coincidences...

More to the point: I really do hope I live to see the discovery of life elsewhere, no matter its complexity.

CosmicCommander:

Adam Jensen:

CosmicCommander:
I'm creaming my pants at the thought of claiming Titan's hydrocarbon deposits. Any company/individual who did that would probably be the richest group/guy ever.

Believe it or not, we already have laws against that.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_heritage_of_mankind

The reason why we have this law is because of the Cold War and the whole space race. Both sides were worried about what would happen if they lose. They thought the other side would be able to claim all the riches from space. So they made that law. Of course, once we're actually able to go up there and exploit all those resources, I have a feeling that law will change drastically.

How can they arrest me once I have all the...

SPACE OIL

Lol.

Space travel is prohibitively expensive now because we use combustion to do it and it takes a tremendous amount of fuel to get out of the earth's gravitational pull. It would never be cost effective to build a tanker that can get to Titan that uses combustion to propel itself. The larger the tanker, the more fuel you have to use to get there and back.

Not to mention the fact that it would take an incredibly long time and would be incredibly dangerous. It would have to be automated because space is just too unhealthy for humans due to the radiation and the effects of weightlessness. There would also be a significant delay in communicating with it due to the speed of light, so it would have to be more or less completely autonomous, which would require one BEAST of an AI.

The only thing that would make it cost effective would be if we came up with some sort of new type of propulsion. But if we did that then we would probably no longer be using combustion, and the value of the methane would go way down and hence would not be worth collecting.

Oh, and methane is a gas, not oil.

Please be life, please be life, please be life!

Quaxar:

gigastar:
Guess Titan can be second choice if colonising Mars doesnt go to plan.

Nah man, Europa is where it's at.
A water ice crust and the possibility of liquid oceans underneath.

Well, if we find a way to block the massive amounts of cosmic radiation that bombard these places. Earth is lucky because it has a spinning iron core that produces a strong electromagnetic field. Though I guess you might be alright if you stayed deep enough under the water in Europa.

antipunt:
Months later:

"GAIS, we confirmed it. There's life!"

"holy crap holy crap!"

"there are microorganisms"

"holy crap!"

"it'll take millions of years of evolution for it to become intelligent!"

"...."

" >_> "

Kill it now! I have seen this movie I know how it ends. Kill it now!

Cool find though. Space jungles may be a nice vacation point if we can make space travel cheaper.

ReiverCorrupter:
Oh, and methane is a gas, not oil.

This is not correct, at least not on Titan. Methane is a gas at room temperature (25C). Cool it down to -180C and it becomes a liquid. Just like water can be in gaseous, liquid, or solid forms, depending on its temperature and pressure, so to can other gasses. In fact, at that temperature, not much is going to be a gas, virtually everything will either be liquid or solid.

BlindWorg:
Time? Is there a rule that every scientific thingimabob project has to make a coherent word when abbrevated i wonder...

Pretty much, yes. It's an old joke that scientists make the acronym first, then figure out what it's going to mean second.

RonHiler:

ReiverCorrupter:
Oh, and methane is a gas, not oil.

This is not correct, at least not on Titan. Methane is a gas at room temperature (25C). Cool it down to -180C and it becomes a liquid. Just like water can be in gaseous, liquid, or solid forms, depending on its temperature and pressure, so to can other gasses. In fact, at that temperature, not much is going to be a gas, virtually everything will either be liquid or solid.

This is true. Of course by that line of reasoning we shouldn't really call anything a 'gas' or a 'solid' unless its atomic/molecular structure is such that it can only exist in a certain form. Otherwise 'solidity' or 'liquidity' are merely states of the substance that are contingent upon its environment, and not an intrinsic property. (Although the potentiality to undergo these different states at certain temperatures could be said to be an intrinsic property, that would probably reduce to an explanation of its atomic structure that doesn't implicitly involve notions of states such as liquidity.)

However, putting all that aside, my point was more about the monetary value of methane, i.e. it is less valuable than the crude oil that we refine into gasoline.

I'm not saying it's aliens, but it's aliens.
In all seriousness I'm pretty stoked to see if this turns out to be life forms.

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