Monday, June 18, 2012

The lakes of Titan


Something long speculated has been confimred.

There are lakes of liquid methane on Titan, the largest of Saturn's moons.  One of these bodies of fluid looks to be the size of the Great Salt Lake.  This data comes to us via the Cassini space probe, which has found that at least a few of the liquid methane pools are gathered around the equatorial region of the moon, creating what are being referred to now as "oases."   Don't get the wrong idea.  We're not talking about liquid water, palm trees, or sandy dunes.  This is methane, remember?  Not good ol' H2O.

It is thought that there may be an underground aquifer that supplies these lakes.  Right now, it isn't believed that rain formed the lakes in the equatorial region as rain has only been observed once in that region.  Therefore, rain could not have formed them.

By gaining an understanding of this process of lake formation, astronomers can then begin to compare the current weather conditions on Titan with those of Earth's earliest days as a planet, an era Titan is thought to resemble.  Is all of this methane leading to the production of amino acids, prime components of life?  That may be so.  Ultraviolet light breaks methane apart in Titan's atmosphere, leading to a complex set of organic chemical reactions.  If so, then is there life on Titan?

We're a long way off from getting an answer to that last question, but the first few steps in moving forward will be to determine if the current theories about Titan in regard to circulation of methane around the moon are correct.  Essentially, it is believed that Titan has a model similar to the hydrological cycle here on Earth, only without water of course.

So far, this all appears to dovetail with the findings of the Hyugens probe that landed on Titan in 2005.  When Huygens landed, the heat of the probe's lamp vaporized some methane from the ground, indicating it had landed in a damp area.  Aside from the lakes, there also must be wide areas that are essentially swampy bogs, muddy with liquid methane.

This just keeps moving towards verification of the theory that Titan may be a ball of primordial soup,  not unlike Earth in its infancy.  Again, this brings us to the hopeful question of life but I need to caution: there has been no evidence as of yet that points towards lifeforms of any category.  A few of the conditions are present on Titan, that's all.  And conditions relevant to only ourselves at this time.  Who knows what other forms life may be based upon?


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