Titan, Where It Rains Methane Every Day
The pictures are interesting, but what scientists hope to gain
from the study of Saturn's moon Titan is even more so -- a lot of
them quite literally look at the images from that distant world and
believe they're looking back in time to what it was like on Earth
When the ESA's Huygens lander touched down on Titan's surface,
it didn't hit with a thump. It didn't land with a "kersplash!"
Instead, the vehicle landed in a sort of hydrocarbon sludge -- a
slushy mixture of what to scientists, looks like a sea of liquified
"We have a very primitive environment here. We can do some
cosmic time travel here," said Tobias Owen of the University of
US News and World Reports quotes ESA scientists in Germany as
saying they now believe the temperature on Titan is a rather chilly
-300F. While the atmosphere is mostly nitrogen, it's also about
Although its batteries are now dead, Huygens was able to relay a
wealth of information back to Earth -- data retransmitted by the
Cassini vehicle before it dropped below Titan's horizon. For three
hours after that, the data was picked up by attentive radio
telescopes pointed at the distant moon.
From what scientists can gather, the Huygens probe broke through
the brittle surface of those frozen hydrocarbons, and settled in a
sort of methane slush.
There is evidence of water and its interaction with the geology
of the moon's surface. But as far as the predicted oceans of mixed
hydrocarbons -- well, that wasn't seen by the probe's cameras on
the way down.
"Suffice it to say this is a planetary scene like no other,
vaguely disturbing and nightmarish to me and certainly not Mars or
Venus," Jonathon Lunine of the University of Arizona, told US
There are no signs of meteor impacts, a strong suggestion that
the surface of Titan is constantly changing. Martin Tomasko, chief
scientist for the Arizona camera system, told US News, "The
materials are different, but we see similar processes [on Earth]:
precipitation, erosion, shorelines, and dry riverbeds."
The abundance of what looks a lot like prehistoric petroleum
reportedly prompted one NASA wag to quip, "Wait till Dick Cheney
gets wind of this!" (Vice President Cheney, of course, served as
head of Halliburton, one of the world's biggest oil field
exploration companies, before joining the Bush team in
"It is, by far, the strangest place in the solar system," says
Bob Mitchell of NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, CA.
Can those hydrocarbons be mined for their energy? Stay