Daily Archives: March 4th, 2008

To Sail the Methane Sea

From Centauri Dreams:

Ever since I was a kid watching Adventures in Paradise on TV, I’ve had a yen for islands, the more remote the better. The show had quite a pull on a young imagination, as skipper Gardner McKay sailed the waters of French Polynesia in his schooner, turning up beautiful women and adventure at most every port. The thought of someday threading through the Tuamotus or setting out for Nuku Hiva and the Marquesas made my spirit soar, and to this day my fascination with maps is undiminished.

So you can imagine how I studied the image below, and the kind of speculations it triggered. Because when you look at a map, you try to put yourself there in your mind, and perhaps no islands are more challenging to imagine than the ones pictured here. The work of San Diego middle school teacher Peter Minton (and thanks to Frank Taylor for the pointer), they’re based on Cassini imagery peering through the murk of Titan’s atmosphere at what seems to be an island group in a methane sea. Assuming, of course, that the methane/ethane mix is something more than sludge, but this is where the imagination has its own work to do.

Saturn’s moon Titan is certainly an oddity in the Outer Solar System. Unlike most moons that are rocky worlds with their atmosphere frozen onto their surface, Titan has a thick, cloudy almost smog-like covering hiding its features. Through the studies of the Cassini probe and its child that landed on Titan’s geography (it actually has one) Huygens, it was found Titan has a frigid temperature (-290 degrees F ( -179 degrees C)) that prohibits liquid water, it has weather, topography, rivers, seas and other features that are unique only to Earth.

Of course instead of water, rocky components and a climate, Titan has methane, hydrocarbons, a rocky terrain and a climate.

It is also theorized that Titan resembles the infant Earth a billion years after its formation. The abundance of chemicals that compose DNA are all over the place, so the possibility of primitive life is there say astrobiologists.

Could life be found on these ‘islands’ in the seas of Titan? Until we have the money, the political will or if private companies find a way of exploiting the hydrocarbon resources economically, it’s likely we won’t know until then.

Of Islands and the Imagination