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When the oil runs out...

...we've got Titan. Liquid methane, hydrocarbon dirt and ammonia volcanoes.

Spectacular images captured by the DISR reveal that Titan has extraordinarily Earth-like meteorology and geology. Images have shown a complex network of narrow drainage channels running from brighter highlands to lower, flatter, dark regions. These channels merge into river systems running into lakebeds featuring offshore 'islands' and 'shoals' remarkably similar to those on Earth.

Thus, while many of Earth's familiar geophysical processes occur on Titan, the chemistry involved is quite different. Instead of liquid water, Titan has liquid methane. Instead of silicate rocks, Titan has frozen water ice. Instead of dirt, Titan has hydrocarbon particles settling out of the atmosphere, and instead of lava, Titanian volcanoes spew very cold ice.
Wow. Time to order up a more sophisticated (and faster) probe.


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 21st, 2005 06:11 am (UTC)

...but no life (as yet). Ah well, Stephen Baxter's predictions weren't entirely correct, although to his credit he did get the Chinese in space and the rise of the religious right in the US.

Jan. 21st, 2005 06:29 am (UTC)
Ah yes, I own the cover art to that!
Jan. 21st, 2005 09:42 am (UTC)
...not to mention the loss of the shuttle Columbia. As he noted to me not so long ago, "I wish that ******* book would stop coming true!"

Jan. 21st, 2005 06:16 am (UTC)
Has anyone done any serious studies into a rapid mission to Titan?
Jan. 21st, 2005 09:56 am (UTC)
NASA is currently working on a technology development programme called Prometheus that is meant to lead to a practical nuclear-propelled spacecraft (probably a fission reactor powering an advanced ion drive). The baseline mission is JIMO, the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, but other suggested uses include a Titan survey.

The logical next step would be a Titan orbiter to carry out a thorough survey. We might actually get that within the next decade, in that one recognised option for an extended mission for Cassini is to use a combination of carefully-planned flybys and aerobraking to capture it into orbit around Titan. However, a dedicated orbiter mission is also a possibility, as it could carry additional lander probes to follow up on Huygens.

Beyond that, some sort of mobile Titan probe is a very attactive idea. It would have to be quite tough to operate in -180 deg C methane mud, although an alternative would be an airship. A blimp would work very well in Titan's dense nitrogen atmosphere, and would allow for extensive survey's of the landscape.

I'm sure that Titan mission proposals will be coming out the woodwork after this. Funding will, as ever, be the issue: Cassini was supposed to be the last of what one pundit dubbed the 'Battlestar Galactica' multi-billion dollar missions, but the Prometheus programme suggests that NASA is thinking along those lines again for cases where the science rewards are worth it.

Jan. 21st, 2005 06:39 am (UTC)
seas of methane
i am kind of more interested by the fact that it seems to have water - even if not in liquid form. Did we know this for sure before?
Jan. 21st, 2005 09:45 am (UTC)
Re: seas of methane
It was strongly suspected; most of the other, smaller, moons around Saturn are substantially made of ice and it was expected that Titan would have a fair amount of its own.

As has been pointed out, in the outer solar system, ice is to all intents and purposes rock. There won't be glaciers on Titan for instance; at -180 degrees C, ice is as rigid as granite.

Jan. 21st, 2005 06:48 am (UTC)
But how will we get it back here?
Jan. 21st, 2005 01:09 pm (UTC)
With a very long hose.
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 21st, 2005 08:37 am (UTC)
do we use chemical rockets? I thought we use ion drives or something like that since they were more efficient.
Jan. 21st, 2005 06:26 pm (UTC)
Ion drives are a bit like fusion, always a couple of years away.

It's not that bad, since unlike fusion they have been demonstrated to work. It's just that whenever the opportunity to add a few kilograms to the payload and shave a few months off the time to encounter comes, the mission designers always seem to go "...nah. We'll let someone else be the pioneers in propulsion technology"

Trouble is, if everyone is letting someone else run the new drive in, no-one is running the new drive in.
Jan. 21st, 2005 01:18 pm (UTC)
Liquid methane, hydrocarbon dirt and ammonia volcanoes

Hell, I've got that in the garage!
Jan. 21st, 2005 05:37 pm (UTC)
Titan has extraordinarily Earth-like meteorology and geology.

If by "Earth", you mean Canvey Island
Jan. 22nd, 2005 03:04 pm (UTC)
Those images are beautiful!
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )