A Moment of Science

Sailing Titan’s Hydrocarbon Seas

Looking for a seaside vacation spot? Consider Saturn's largest moon, Titan. There's no chance of getting sunburned, but you'll want to take a heavy parka...

Earth's size compared to Titan

Photo: Yankee November (flickr)

The only one of Saturn's moons with an atmosphere, a yellow smoggy one filled with methane, ethane, and propane clouds, Titan also has active volcanoes and few impact craters.

Looking for a peaceful seaside vacation spot? You might want to consider Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

Titan is nothing like the Earth’s moon. Not only is it almost twice the size, it’s eighty-percent more massive. The only one of Saturn’s moons with an atmosphere, a yellow smoggy one filled with methane, ethane, and propane clouds, Titan also has active volcanoes and few impact craters.

Methane and Ethane

Scientists have long speculated that Titan might have seas filled with organic compounds like ethane and methane. It wasn’t until NASA’s Cassini spacecraft reached the moon and scanned the surface with radar and an infrared mapping spectrometer that bodies of the liquid natural gases were detected.

An ethane lake the size of Lake Ontario was found in the southern hemisphere, while a sea almost as large as the Caspian Sea and many smaller lakes were discovered in the northern hemisphere.

Scientists now believe Titan has a hydrological cycle similar to Earth. But instead of water forming clouds, rain, and then evaporating to clouds again, Titan has two cycling substances: methane and ethane.

Extraterrestrial Life?

Another exciting possibility is that Titan might be a cauldron for extraterrestrial life. Except for its lower temperature, 290 degrees below zero, the moon has similar conditions to that of early Earth.

Oceans rich in organic molecules might be home to life forms with liquid natural gas in their veins. That is why NASA hopes to look at Titan more closely in the future by sending a splashdown lander or floating air ship to the moon.

Of course, if you want to check out Titan’s seas before then, beware. There is no chance of getting sunburned, but you’ll want to take a heavy parka.

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