Saturn's Titan -A Giant Organics Factory
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January 08, 2009

Saturn's Titan -A Giant Organics Factory

Titans_lakes_1 "Titan is just covered in carbon-bearing material -- it's a giant factory of organic chemicals."

"We are carbon-based life, and understanding how far along the chain of complexity towards life that chemistry can go in an environment like Titan will be important in understanding the origins of life throughout the universe."

~Ralph Lorenz -Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Titan_lake_4 Saturn's orange moon Titan has hundreds of times more liquid hydrocarbons than all the known oil and natural gas reserves on Earth, according to new data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. The hydrocarbons rain from the sky, collecting in vast deposits that form lakes and dunes.

At an eye popping minus 179 degrees Celsius (minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit), Titan has a surface of liquid hydrocarbons in the form of methane and ethane with tholins believed to make up its dunes. The term "tholins," coined by Carl Sagan in 1979, describe the complex organic molecules at the heart of prebiotic chemistry.

Cassini has mapped about 20 percent of Titan's surface with radar. Several hundred lakes and seas have been observed, with each of several dozen estimated to contain more hydrocarbon liquid than Earth's oil and gas reserves. Dark dunes that run along the equator contain a volume of organics several hundred times larger than Earth's coal reserves.

Proven reserves of natural gas on Earth total 130 billion tons, enough to provide 300 times the amount of energy the entire United States uses annually for residential heating, cooling and lighting. Dozens of Titan's lakes individually have the equivalent of at least this much energy in the form of methane and ethane.

"This global estimate is based mostly on views of the lakes in the northern polar regions. We have assumed the south might be similar, but we really don't yet know how much liquid is there," said Lorenz. Cassini's radar has observed the south polar region only once, and only two small lakes were visible. Future observations of that area are planned during Cassini's proposed extended mission.

"We also know that some lakes are more than 10 meters or so deep because they appear literally pitch-black to the radar. If they were shallow we'd see the bottom, and we don't," said Lorenz.

The question of how much liquid is on the surface is an important one because methane is a strong greenhouse gas on Titan as well as on Earth, but there is much more of it on Titan. If all the observed liquid on Titan is methane, it would only last a few million years, because as methane escapes into Titan's atmosphere, it breaks down and escapes into space. If the methane were to run out, Titan could become much colder. Scientists believe that methane might be supplied to the atmosphere by venting from the interior in cryovolcanic eruptions. If so, the amount of methane, and the temperature on Titan, may have fluctuated dramatically in Titan's past.

Cassini's next radar flyby of Titan is on Feb. 22, when the radar instrument will observe the Huygens probe landing site. The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency.

Posted by Casey Kazan. Adapted from a Jet Propulsion Laboratory release.

If you liked this article, please give it a quick review on Digg, Reddit, or StumbleUpon.Thanks!

Related Galaxy posts:

Saturn's Rings as Ancient as Solar System
Non-Carbon Lifeforms -Why We May Overlook Extra-terrestrial Life
Saturn's Moon Titan Mimics Earth's Tropics

"Limits of Organic Life": Gov't Urges Solar-System Search for Exotic Non-Carbon Life
Detecting Alien Life -The Great "Man or Machine" Space-Exploration Debate

Link: http://www.nasa.gov/cassini and http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov .

Comments

Unfortunately we won't be able to land without igniting the atmosphere itself.

im just a cook, but wouldnt ignition require oxygen?

can sun has oxygen?

The sun makes "fire" through nuclear processes (atoms fusing together under immense pressure release energy in a cascade manner).

Igniting the atmosphere of a planet is not the same.
It does not use pressure or sub-atomic reactions.
Therefore, the sun can radiate heat/light across millions of miles through the (near) vacuum of space.

Bryce 3d, anyone? Srsly though, if anything was in danger of igniting it would have by now (vulcanism, lightning, impacts). Given the lack of free oxygen and the freezing temperatures... not a concern.

maybe we can burn it on Titan and microwave beam it back to our base on the moon then use our space elevators to exchange carbon nanotube batteries with the earth. brilliant!

Atmosphere on Titan won't ignite during landing because there is no free oxygen in it.

However there is no point to plan oil export from Titan because fusion reactor being built in France: in case if it won't fail stinkin oil/coal/gas energy will become extinct in like 20 years.

ALL THESE WORLDS
ARE YOURS EXCEPT
EUROPA
ATTEMPT NO
LANDING THERE
CAUSE YOU WILL
GET BURNED DOWN

We need to pay attention to Titan & Europa even more than Mars, because even though Mars looks more Earth -like, there's probably no life existing there except in fossil form.

Sure, go to Mars, of course, but Titan & Europa are better places to look for extra - terestrial life in our own back yard, & appearances can be deceiving.

The ignition limit for methane with Earth levels of O2 is 3.6%, which is somewhat more than Titan's estimated ~1.5% methane levels. Titan is also totally free of O2 so there can be no ignition. CH4 and N2 can react, and they do so very slowly in the upper atmosphere where UV light is available to trigger their reaction. That's where all the current reaction chemistry is happening on Titan, up high in the Sun's wan light.

@bwaap: dude, you forgot the polywell fusion ships to get there! Your vision of the future is soooooo last week.

we already did land.
case closed.

How long would it take, using current space technology, which presumably won't radically change for at least another few decades, on Titan ? With a human - crewed ship ? Ion drives would presumably cut down on the time considerably.

Feel free to correct me / enlighten me on the speed of ion drives.

A human crewed mission to Titan would take years using current chemical rocket systems. Look at how long Cassini took - Oct 1997 to July 2004. Nearly 7 years of braving space hazards is probably too much to ask as we have no current method of protection that's effective against Galactic Cosmic Rays, and the cumulative damage from those would affect the crew significantly.

A straight Hohmann trajectory launched directly from low Earth orbit would take 6 years, so it's not much of an improvement. Our fastest probes took ~ 4 years. And they couldn't stop.

Ion drives can reach higher speeds, but their acceleration is very low and flights to Saturn would actually take longer. Chang-Diaz's VASIMR plasma rocket would allow quicker journey times, but only if it has a sufficiently powerful energy source. Currently we don't have one that's ready for the task. Space-going nuclear reactors are heavy for the power they produce, so they're not up to the task. Advanced reactor designs and power conversion systems could do it, but they're as yet undeveloped - we know how, but no one has done it yet. Chang-Diaz suggests a gas-core reactor attached to an MHD converter. Both gas-core reactors and MHD power converters have been experimented with, but a space-going version would require a lot of development.

The other option is a Bussard Polywell fusor, but no one yet knows if it can produce more power than it uses to create fusion. Current experiments are positive, but no one has done it yet.

Yeah, well, that's were Mars bases become valuable posts for sending humans farther out into space. Also, somebody suggested we use asteroids to piggy-back to the outer limits. That sounds like a reasonable idea if we had bases on them.

Good .....at least 'they' have there the energy that we need....'here'.

I guess that lightnings were seen and measured (Spanish scientists??) on Titan...very recently.

Titan ATM did NOT ignite for those....there was an article stating that lightning can start life....

All is rather interesting ....with tantalizing of some scientists...that Titan could sustain life forms....If so those must be 'rather particular'...considering the Titan Moon temperature...of about -150°Celsius...or the like.

BUT we never know.

However we should note...the enormous spread of differences in the various moons of the Solar system...we span from rocky dead stones...to water rich moons ..to Hydrocarbon reach moons...to Volcanic moons (Io)...

This is really interesting .....I guess...and some of these moons so different are orbiting the same planet (e.g Juppiter and Saturn).......very interesting

Regards

Yeah, well, that's were Mars bases become valuable posts for sending humans farther out into space. Also, somebody suggested we use asteroids to piggy-back to the outer limits. That sounds like a reasonable idea if we had bases on them :)

Adam:

That's an *excellent* summation, I would only add that there's been a signifigant advance in ion propulsion in Australia and Europe, known as DS4G (for Dual Stage Four Grid):

http://www.daviddarling.info/encyclopedia/D/DS4G_ion_engine.html

http://esamultimedia.esa.int/docs/gsp/completed/C19255ExS.pdf

And *if* the Polywell concept works out, it could give us major interplanetary flight options:

http://nextbigfuture.com/2007/11/fusion-propulsion-if-bussard-iec-fusion.html

Titan:

"Yeah, well, that's were Mars bases become valuable posts for sending humans farther out into space. Also, somebody suggested we use asteroids to piggy-back to the outer limits."

That's not really true, any more than for those who see the Moon as some sort of re-fueling stop. It all kind of implies that everything in the solar system is in a straight line extending from Earth. The Moon is just as far, and subject to the much the same launch windows as anyplace deeper into the solar system that you'd want to go. There's no advantage.

And there will be many times that Earth will be closer than Mars to distant destinations. Mars is a worthy goal in its own right, and there may well be times in the future when ships will go from there to somewhere else, but only because specific circumstances happened to cause you to start from Mars, not because it was a natural interim point for a flight from Earth...

I am afraid that titan will explodes and then Saturn will be ignited as sun. And then Saturn will turn into a black hole shortly after. Saturn's surface is like a sponge. The density is less than water it will absolve the heat and start to burn. I think titan's heat will be hot enough to start nova. If Saturn start to burn it will burnt out briefly after it turn into sun. Sun has much more density compare to Saturn. Saturn will be like a piece of paper burning compare to sun. It shouldn't be that difficult to ignite Saturn for sure. Saturn is black hole waiting to become. It's the planet's destiny. It has beautiful rings and it looks like welcoming but it's hell it will trap everything inside. It's best til we can build space ship to fly further away from us and technology developed enough to do anything safely. However, human's greed will destroy everything just like oil and earthquakes and climate changes.

Yang, that isn't possible. In order for it to be come a black hole, it would have to be immensely larger. Not even our own sun is large enough to become a black hole. It's not reasonable that Titan would ignite Saturn any way. Come on man, I'm only 12 and I'm showing you up!!!


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