News & Views

Yachts of Titan


NASA's Cassini probe, currently in orbit around the planet Saturn, has in recent years confirmed that there are large liquid lakes of methane, ethane, and propane on the s urface of Saturn's moon Titan. (The radar image seen here was gathered by Cassini in July 2006.) Titan also has a dense atmosphere, which, believe it or not, makes it more like Earth than any other planetary body we know of. Might it make a decent cruising ground? One group of scientists, led by Dr. Ellen Stofan of Proxemy Research, is dying to find out. Last week at the American Geophysical Union's Fall Meeting in San Francisco, Stofan presented details of her proposal to land a boat on one of Titan's largest methane lakes, known as Ligeia Mare, which is believed to be about the size of the Caspian Sea.

Planning for a Titan Mare Explorer (a.k.a. TiME) has been underway for two years. The projected design is for a capsule-like vessel with a mast (apparently not shown here) to support a camera. A small nuclear generator will create enough power to transmit data back to Earth, but will not provide any propulsion. And no, there won't be any sails either. The little radar data that is available suggests that Titan's inland seas have average wave heights of only a few centimeters, indicating severe light-air conditions. Apparently, there is weather, however, and even methane rain, so maybe a squall blows through from time to time.

Stofan projects that yachting on Titan will cost about $425 million. If NASA approves the plan, TiME could blast off in January 2016 and splash down into Ligeia Mare by June 2023.

Might there be life on Titan? Perhaps something small and bug-like, but temperatures are on the order of minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit (hence all the liquid hydrocarbons) so biodiversity is probably limited. Fans of Kurt Vonnegut will recall, however, that Titan is where the Tralfamadorian robot envoy Salo was stranded and that the real purpose of human civilization is to fabricate a single spare part for his spacecraft.

Just in case you were wondering.



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