Titan, the largest moon of Saturn and the second largest moon in the solar system, just might be the most ‘alien’ yet, ‘earth-like’ world that science currently knows. There are so many elements of this world that make it a priority destination in space exploration but it’s competition for projects and funding, grows every year. Newly discovered exoplanets that include Hot Jupiters, Super-Earths and Water worlds may understandably steal our imaginations for awhile but in the “local” Saturn system, there is a world with a planet like atmosphere, seasons and a hydrological cycle.
Yes, Mars is still promising, Europa might have more liquid water than all of Earth and Kepler-186f could be Earth’s cousin, but it still remains, that the Saturnian moon Titan is a goldmine for science and exploration.
Obscured by a golden atmosphere, consisting of primarily nitrogen and methane, Titan is the only celestial body in our solar system besides Earth, to have rivers and lakes of liquid flowing across it’s surface. It also has a weather cycle similar to our home planet, in which it rains, evaporates back into the sky and thus repeats, filling and replenishing it’s natural occurring rivers and lakes.
However, it is not liquid water that is raining down on Titan’s surface, it is liquid methane.
It is so cold on Titan, that methane gas has changed into liquid form, making lakes, rivers and oceans, on a moon that is bigger than the planet Mercury. Astonishingly and in a fascinating twist of nature, the contents of natural gas tankers here on Earth, flow freely and abundantly on a world that only receives 1% the amount of sunlight as Earth does.
Make no mistake, despite having beaches and coves, Titan is a frigid world, At an average temperature of -292 degrees fareinheit (-179.6 degrees celsius) it is outrageous to even think of a place where there is free flowing liquids but that is the reality of this large but not all too dense moon.
Though, where all of Titan’s methane gas comes from is an enormous mystery. (no other moon or planet in Sol has this). Some scientists suggest it is the result of deep cryovolcanos on and beneath the surface but it remains a topic of pure speculation.
Many might think that a world of raining, pooling methane and ethane gas, is a dangerous and very explosive place to travel to, but without oxygen in Titan’s atmosphere, the effects of combustion do not apply. Yet this still surmises the obvious; Titan is a natural resource goldmine. Its landscape is covered in fuel, we could harvest and burn with technology not much more advanced than the gas furnace found in a typical North American home.
Once deep space travel is perfected in the inner solar system, it probably won’t be long until corporations descend on the natural gas rich world orbiting Saturn. While scientists are enthralled by the science waiting to be done on this moon, others might just see profits and dollar signs.
There is already talk and plans of mining resource rich asteroids, so it is not impossible to imagine the hydrocarbon rich world of Titan becoming a 21st century version of the California gold rush.
Along with bodies of liquid, the moon has mountains, valleys, gullies, dunes and plains. There are beaches and coastlines where sunlight reflects off the liquid methane in the same way the sun reflects off the waters of Lake Superior on a picturesque summer afternoon. Tectonic forces, which is the process of shifting movement of the surface due to pressure from the interior, is suspected to be active on the moon. and although very little is understood about Titan’s unique tectonics process, we know that plate tectonics on Earth helped contribute to the development of life, by the recycling of organic molecules.
The Cassini spacecraft, spent over a decade studying the Saturn system before it hurled itself into the Gas Giant’s stormy atmosphere to prevent potential contamination on Titan or other satellites. In 2005, Cassini using radar instruments, mapped 90% of Titan’s surface and then released the Hyugens probe into it’s atmosphere,
Cassini and its Hyugens probe, have been our best instruments so far at uncovering the mysteries of this alien moon, and the data that was gathered is still being analyzed and gasped over, to this day.
But what awaits the first Human explorers when they finally make the voyage out to the outer solar system?
Many scientists suspect that Titan plays host to new form of methane based life. Yes, there might be lifeforms swimming in Titan’s sea’s and lakes in which their discovery would change everything we know about the development of life.
In the future, Astronauts and explorers who venture to Titan, may bring along submarines and other machines to explore the depths of Kraken Mare, a Titan sea that is 1,170 km in length.
In the book, “Beyond Earth; Our Path To A New Home In The Planets” by Charles Wohlforth and Amanda Hendrix, former JPL and Planetary Institute Scientist, the authors lay out a case that Titan, not Mars, is the world where we should focus on building a new home.
They tackle the challenges of deep space missions and also the reasons that have kept NASA fairly grounded in terms of human missions to the planets.
While it would be hard to convince the majority of scientists that Mars is not the best candidate in our solar system for Human settlement, it is also hard for one to ignore a world that resembles an early Earth.
Another heavenly body with lakes, mountains and weather cycles, it seems like science fiction but that is what awaits explorers in the outer solar system.