Thursday, July 31, 2008

Science marches on: Can we interest you in some choice lakeside property on Saturn's most desirable moon?


It's now confirmed that those lake-like thingies we see in this 2007 radar image of the surface of Saturn's moon Titan are filled with liquid. If you're planning to use your in-laws' lakeside timeshare there, though, don't forget to wait at least an hour after eating before going in the, er, liquid.

"This is the first observation that really pins down that Titan has a surface lake filled with liquid."
-- Bob Brown, team leader of the international spacecraft Cassini's visual and mapping instrument, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena

by Ken

Gosh, this is embarrassing. I didn't know there was such a thing as an international Cassini spacecraft, and here it's been exploring Saturn's rings and moons since it got out there in mid-2004. In that time it has apparently flown by Titan 40 times, which is surely a bigger deal than anything I've accomplished in the same period. Why, in January 2005 -- so the story goes -- Cassini launched a probe that parachuted to Titan's surface!

Cassini turns out to be a project of NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency. I tried to find out whether it was named for the late fashion designer Oleg Cassini, the only Cassini I know of, but the AP article didn't say. Did you know, by the way, that Oleg Cassini was nearing his 93rd birthday when he died in 2006? I found that out in Wikipedia. The probe launched to the surface of Titan, by the way, was called Huygens. I don't know anyone named Huygens.

Hey, I'm trying to get into the spirit of the thing. It just may be, though, that you have to be a scientist to get properly excited about this business of lakes on Titan. In our entire solar system, it appears it's now down to just us and Titan as the only entities in the solar system with liquid on their surface. (Apparently when you spill coffee on your desk, that doesn't count. But if the coffee attacks your computer keyboard, don't expect any help from NASA -- or the European spaceniks either, I'll bet.)

Probably you're thinking, if the beaches nearest you are anywhere near as crowded as the ones nearest me, that this might be a cool way of catching some rays without boom boxes blaring and kids kicking sand in your face as they run past. However, I'm guessing the trip is apt to be even worse than the one to that packed beach near you -- double that for a round trip, and it's probably not practical just for weekends. (And at today's gas prices!) Plus I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that temperatures on Titan are on the cool side, even in summer. (I figure on a planet-size moon like Titan it must be summer somewhere.)

And, oh yes, the liquid in the lakes of Titan isn't water, it's liquid ethane, which according to the article is a component of crude oil. It sounds like trying to swim on our beaches once the Republicans start doing all that offshore drilling.

Still, if you're looking for bargains among the moons of Saturn, you'll probably want to stick with Titan. Enceladus (below), for example, has huge frozen geysers shooting from it -- and you know what an inopportune frozen geyser can do to a picnic.

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At 8:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Huygens discovered Titan in the 1600s. He was a Dutch philosopher who helped invent calculus.

At 12:50 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks for the info. I'll bet his parents were very proud.

I don't suppose he crossed paths with Oleg Cassini?


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