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13-15 years old: The lakes of Titan

 Authors: Anirudhh Ramesh, Jakub Filcak

The largest of Saturn’s moons, Titan has long been an object of fascination to the scientific community. It is with good reason, as this moon could provide us with scientific insights into potential extraterrestrial life and a further understanding of the processes which would have played a key part in the formation of Earth’s biosphere, early in its life.

Titan has a dense atmosphere composed of nitrogen (98.4%), methane (1.4%) and hydrogen (0.1-0.2%), one of few atmospheres in our solar system to primarily be composed of nitrogen. The pressure of the atmosphere, being 1.6 bars, is not completely dissimilar to our own, of 1 bar. Due to the relative abundance of methane in Titan’s atmosphere, haze- a state of matter that occurs when light photons break up the gaseous methane- is common. Like the smog on Earth, this has made it difficult to observe the happenings on Titan’s surface and a significant amount of the information we have today was only uncovered after the Huygens probe landed on it in 2005.

This moon is equipped with a tepid core, with vast oceans of liquid water existing between the high-pressure ice mantles and the ice sheets that cover its surface. The existence of liquid water feeds into theories of organic compounds forming within the moon, but the boundless oceans may not be the most interesting secret of the astronomical titan that is Titan. On its surface, Titan’s temperature hovers around 94 kelvin, 17 kelvin below methane’s boiling point. This has allowed the formation of liquid methane lakes across Titan yet also a methane cycle analogous to the hydrological cycle on Earth, as in the formation of rain droplets due to evaporation. These unique features are same as the reasons that make Titan such an intriguing world, as it could perhaps harbour pre-biotic substances and hold key insights into the formation of rudimentary cells and compounds.
Although the nature of life on Titan will probably be different to that on Earth, it would nevertheless enhance our understanding of Earth’s primordial evolution. A closer examination of Titan’s lakes and the processes within them would also enlighten us as of the behaviour of compounds in prehistoric environments. While Titan is similar enough to Earth to provide us with significant knowledge about how these reactions would have happened, it is also diverse enough to present us with the behaviour of the reactions in an environment with certain factors changed.

In conclusion, Titan’s methane lakes could provide us with knowledge about processes that take place in an environment, with conditions comparable to those once present on Earth. It will also give us a broader view of their occurrence and their dependence on environmental factors, which could substantially aid our understanding of the origins of life. Perhaps it might put to rest a question we have been asking ourselves since humanity's conception, whether we are alone in the universe. It could also hold exciting prospects such as eventually serving as a refuelling station for future, methane-powered rockets.


Last Update: 19 May 2017

For further information please contact: SciTech.editorial@esa.int

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