Saturday, 17 August 2013

Forget Mars - go to Titan!

I can remember the feeling of excitement I felt when the Huygens probe touched down on the surface of Titan, the biggest moon of Saturn.  Suddenly, we saw a landscape: shades of pale orange, rounded boulders scattered here and there.  So much more data came back from this mission, but the image of the rounded boulders told us so much.  Rounded meant eroded, rocks tumbling in a river, ground down by collisions.  This could have been an Earth landscape if not for the orange light, and the temperature.  The rocks were not the familiar minerals of Earth, but ice - water ice frozen into hardness.  The river that tossed the rocks around was not one of water, but methane.

So much of Titan looks familiar.  Mountains, rivers, seas, volcanoes,  dry land with dunes.  Titan was a stage on which the same stories where told but with different players.  Mountains of ice, rivers of hydrocarbons, volcanoes from which water/ammonia lava flowed.  This is becoming a familiar story - cold doesn't seem to be a barrier to interesting and beautiful things happening: Freezing Neptune has the strongest winds of anywhere in the Solar System!

Does the similarity with Earth stop with landscapes?  Does the existence of water lava mean that there might be life?  Perhaps.  Titan is literally dripping with complex chemistry, as energy from the distant sun reacts with Titan's atmosphere.  It's definitely worth looking.

There is another advantage to Titan for humans.  Strange as it may seem, it could be a great place for a colony.  Titan has an atmosphere - not thick enough to be harmful to people, but thick enough to mean that humans could walk on Titan's surface without space suits.  Heated clothing would be vital, but all that would be needed to breathe would be an oxygen mask.  The atmosphere would protect against cosmic and solar radiation.  Titan has all the resources a colony would need - plenty of water as ice and vast amounts of hydrocarbons to make food and fuel.

There is no other place away from our planet that we could walk in the 'open air', without fear of radiation or decompression.  And just think of the views of Saturn!

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