Saturn Moon Could Power 150 Billion Labor Day Barbecues

September 7, 2009
Titan, seen during Cassini's Mar. 31, 2005, flyby

( -- Since its discovery by Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens in 1655, Saturn's most massive moon, Titan, has been known as a place of mystery and intrigue. The large, cloud-enshrouded moon is such a scientific enigma that for the past five years, it has been targeted by NASAs Cassini spacecraft with more than 60 probing flybys. One of its latest findings could be a valuable asset to future generations of space explorers hunting for materials to whip up a Labor Day barbecue.

"Titan's atmosphere is extremely rich in an assortment of hydrocarbon chemicals, including propane, which we use to fill our barbecue tanks," said Cassini scientist Conor Nixon of the University of Maryland, College Park. "Titan's atmospheric inventory would fuel about 150 billion barbecue cookouts, enough for several thousand years of Labor Days."

For those who are burger, barbecue or Titan challenged, propane is a three-carbon alkane (a consisting of carbon and hydrogen), that is non-toxic and heavier than air. With its low boiling point of minus 43.6 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 42 degrees Centigrade), propane vaporizes as soon as it is released from its pressurized container. Here on Earth, propane is commonly used as a fuel for forklifts, flamethrowers, residential central heating, portable stoves, hot air balloons, and - of course - barbecues. On other worlds propane is an untapped resource.

This gas of many terrestrial uses was first discovered in Titan's atmosphere back in 1980 when NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft flew past the Saturnian system. Over the years, both ground and space-based instruments have added to the research, but accurately quantifying the amount of propane on Titan has proved elusive. Then, in 2004, the entered orbit around .

Measuring the amount of propane on Titan is important to scientists because the gas is a very complex molecule, and its signature in the infrared spectrum is close to those of several molecules scientists are hoping to discover in Titan's atmosphere.

"It was not so much that measuring propane was our endgame, but it helps enormously in our hunt for other complex molecules," said Nixon. "These include pyrimidines that are potential building blocks for biological molecules, such as the nuceleobases of our DNA." If we can detect them on Titan, that would be very significant."

Propane on Titan was measured using data from Cassini's Composite Infrared Spectrometer instrument. During multiple flybys of the moon between June 2004 and June 2008, the instrument measured infrared light from the edge of Titan's atmosphere. After a detailed analysis of the gas's characteristic 'emission bands' or signature, using computer predictions backed by the latest laboratory research into its infrared spectrum, the Composite Infrared Spectrometer team came up with an estimate of the amount of propane in Titan's atmosphere So exactly how much propane does it take to fire 150 billion cookouts?

"We estimate there are nearly 700 million barrels of propane on Titan, said Nixon. "That is enough to fill six-billion 20-pound tanks of liquefied propane gas. It sounds like a huge amount, but that would satisfy total U.S. consumption of propane for only 18 months."

Which still leaves, with regards to Saturn's biggest , one Labor Day staple still to be determined. How many hamburgers could future generations of outer-planet explorers grill using Titan's atmospheric propane?

"A dozen at a time, that's two trillion hamburgers," said Cassini's Nixon, "assuming you stop at medium-well."

Nixon is the lead author on a paper about on to be published in an upcoming issue of Planetary and Space Science.

Provided by JPL/NASA (news : web)

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5 / 5 (2) Sep 07, 2009
That was a really poorly written article. It completely missed the point of the scientists paper.
1 / 5 (1) Sep 07, 2009
SCIENTIFIC ENIGMA: Is the Sun a Ball of H and He?

NASA's Cassini scientists overlook the real scientific enigma.

Xenon-136, a tracer isotope made by the the r-process of nucleosynthesis, is more abundant in Jupiter than in these samples of the inner part of the solar system: Mars, Earth, and the Sun. Therefore different material initially formed the inner and outer parts of the solar system.

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
3 / 5 (1) Sep 07, 2009

3 / 5 (1) Sep 07, 2009
SCIENTIFIC ENIGMA: Is the Sun a Ball of H and He?

Yes it is.

The inner planets are small and get far more sunlight than the outer planets. At any given moment some minute fraction of light gases have a speed higher than the escape velocity and they can escape from the upper atmosphere. Light gases released on Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars gradually boil off into space.

"Hot-jupiters" exist in other solar systems. They have enough gravity and enough hydrogen gas and helium to keep a very thick atmosphere for a long period of time.
2 / 5 (3) Sep 08, 2009

Sorry, Soylent.

Different pots of elements initially formed the inner and outer parts of the solar system. That was confirmed in 1995 by the Galileo Mission to Jupiter.

The concept of uniform starting material does not explain the presence of excess Xe-136 from the r-process in Jupiter and in tiny diamond inclusions made of C (carbon) in meteorites.

The presence of excess Xe-136 in Jupiter was:

1. Predicted in 1983 ["Solar abundance of the elements", Meteoritics 18 (1983) 209-222; ],

2. Observed when the probe entered Jupiter's atmosphere in 1995, and

3. Reported when the xenon isotope data were released to public in 1998 ["Isotopic ratios in Jupiter confirm intra-solar diffusion", Meteoritics and Planetary Science 33, A97 (1998) paper 5011; ]

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
3 / 5 (2) Sep 08, 2009
I like my burger medium rare...

So this is the sort of clever "human interest" connection that geeks try to spin around their research? I don't think these people had much of a, you know, social life, in their formative years.

5 / 5 (1) Sep 08, 2009
wes-george, don't underestimate the geeks. Believe me, this article was NOT written by someone I would call a geek. A reallyshitjournalist, more likely.

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