Thursday, July 31, 2008
Mars, Titan both yield "Liquid Sky" secrets to NASA
Well, I don’t know that scientific findings in space announced major political or social issues, but they do make us ponder the big stuff.
Today, NASA reported that its robotic lander near the Martian North Pole established that the ice that it found, when melted, really was water and not carbon dioxide. Finding water (along with the evidence that much of the Martian surface was cut into channels and canyons by water) raises the likelihood that some kind of life comparable to ours existed before and could exist underground today.
But what’s more interesting is the finding of an ethane lake on Titan, the large moon of Saturn about the size of Mercury and with 2/3 the diameter of Mars. It has a thick atmosphere, and all the chemicals it takes to make life. It’s just too cold, unless there is a source of heat underneath from seismic activity, or heat from Saturn’s gravity. The lake is about the size of Lake Superior. This is the first body outside of the Earth in the Solar System in which a liquid lake or sea has been found. There may well be many more, judging from Cassini photographs.
Titan has a “reducing atmosphere” of nitrogen and "greenhouse gas" hydrocarbons (and probably ammonia). If there were (enough) oxygen present, it could burn. Theoretically, it could provide all the fossil fuel humans could ever need, if we could bring it back, and didn’t have to worry about global warming. Imagine “strip mining” and “mountaintop removal” on Titan. Remember that the “Alien” movies were predicated on the idea that other planets (even in other solar systems) would be mined for natural resources.
NASA offers a video and media show “Titan Video Tour” at this URL. NASA has accumulated a lot of pictures from Titan’s surface, and offers some artist’s renditions. One picture showed a coastline that looked a bit like the southern California coast. The Wikipedia article also has some good pictures. (Yes, Titan has enough "notability".)
It takes light (and hence a radio wave email to any angelic inhabitants) a bit more than an hour to reach Titan from Earth at closest position; hence the title of my experimental sci-fi screenplay "69 Minutes to Titan."
Europa, a moon of Jupiter, is thought to have an ocean underneath an icy surface which may be only a few thousand feet thick. At it is just conceivable that Triton, a moon of Neptune, could have liquid nitrogen on the surface, as could the “Plutonian” bodies like Pluto itself or Sedna.
Titan and Europa would make great subject matter for an Imax film. Oh, remember that Gustav Mahler named his Symphony #1 “The Titan.”