Avoid swimming in interplanetary lakes: Research confirms oily 'water' on Saturn's moon

Sep 21, 2010
Image credit: NASA

Titan, one of Saturn's moons, is the only moon in the solar system with an atmosphere -- ten times denser than the atmosphere of Earth. Five years ago, the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn, a collaboration between the European Space Agency and NASA, sent a probe through Titan's atmosphere, revealing that Titan is home to a landscape that includes hills, valleys and most notably lakes.

A researcher involved with the mission, Prof. Akiva Bar-Nun of Tel Aviv University's Department of Geophysics and Planetary Sciences, has now determined the composition of these lakes. Taking into account the chemical components of Titan's atmosphere, he has demonstrated that the lakes are not composed of water but contain liquid hydrocarbons like and , which are also found in oil and gas wells on Earth.

His in-depth analysis of the of Titan's atmosphere and lakes was recently published in the - Planets.

Gases turned to rain

"Titan's unique atmosphere does not include nitrogen and oxygen like Earth's, but rather nitrogen and methane," Prof. Bar-Nun says. Solar irradiation of the methane in Titan's atmosphere produces a variety of hydrocarbon gases, which condense in the atmosphere and fall to the surface of Saturn's moon.

"Upon reaching the cold surface, they liquefy, raining down, flowing through the gullies and accumulating into lakes ― but you wouldn't want to jump into them on a summer holiday," he continues. Further solar irradiation of these hydrocarbons in the atmosphere also produces tiny globules of polymers, or aerosols, which give Titan its famed orange glow.

The chemical processes on Titan are different than those on Earth because there is no water vapor in Titan's air, leading to hydrocarbon-based lakes unlike those seen on our planet. Because of this, the frequent claims that Titan could be a laboratory for the investigation of life's emergence on Earth are unfounded, he says.

From Titan to Siberia?

Prof. Bar-Nun says that these recent findings confirm predictions that he made in 1979, when he first developed the theory that there were lakes on Titan. Upon falling to the moon's surface, he theorized, the hydrocarbons in the atmosphere would form lakes with a depth of approximately 43 meters had they been covering the entire surface of Titan. In addition, he hypothesized that the same elements would form aerosols in the atmosphere.

The Cassini-Huygens mission also confirmed a prediction that Prof. Bar-Nun and his fellow researchers made in 1999 regarding the height of mountains on Titan. Titan's water-ice crust, he explains, has similar properties to the permafrost found in Siberia. Being partly fluid, permafrost permits hills and mountains to rise no higher than 1,900 meters, or approximately 6,200 feet. And indeed, no hill or mountain on Titan's surface exceeds that height, the researchers found.

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User comments : 11

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HealingMindN
2.3 / 5 (9) Sep 21, 2010
Please, let's send the oil cartels to titan, so they can leave the earth alone. In fact, just leave them there. The sad part is, even after reading this, certain people will still believe that petrol only comes from fossils.
marjon
1.5 / 5 (8) Sep 21, 2010
I didn't know there were dinosaurs on Titan.
That's were all hydrocarbons fuels originated right?
Oil can't be abiogenic can it?
Cyberguy
3 / 5 (2) Sep 21, 2010
I think BP has already been there.
Jonseer
3 / 5 (4) Sep 21, 2010
the question regarding the titan's transgender community remains unanswered though.
jwalkeriii
1 / 5 (6) Sep 21, 2010
That would be an awesome light show.
Bring a flare on the next mission-- burn baby burn!
nuge
Sep 22, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
kuro
4.6 / 5 (5) Sep 22, 2010
even after reading this, certain people will still believe that petrol only comes from fossils.


Where did it say "petrol" in the article above? Hydrocarbons are found everywhere in the Universe, not only on Titan. Hydrocarbons with the composition of those in the oil wells - well, that may be a slightly different story.
Sarai_RSA
4 / 5 (2) Sep 22, 2010
The chemical processes on Titan are different than those on Earth because there is no water vapor in Titan's air, leading to hydrocarbon-based lakes unlike those seen on our planet


Different in what way? Are they visibly\structurally different? Is it because of variation in erosion? Do fluid hydrocarbons exhibit erosional properties?

I didn't know there were dinosaurs on Titan.
That's were all hydrocarbons fuels originated right?
Oil can't be abiogenic can it?


AFAIK, hydrocarbons were and are being created all over the universe under many conditions. But wait for someone better versed to respond.
Decimatus
4.2 / 5 (5) Sep 22, 2010
The hydrocarbons on Titan are Methane CH4 and Ethane C2H6.

Petroleum(Oil) starting at C5H12(Pentane), C8H18(Octane-Gas), and C16H34(Hexadecane-Diesel) and up is considerably more complex and difficult to reproduce by nature.

As a result, Petroleum Hydrocarbons also have considerably higher energy density than the basic forms found on Titan. It is why they are so valuable to our industrial economy.

Not to say there are no complex hydrocarbons on Titan, but it isn't like the place is covered in oil.

It would be interesting to drop a massive amount of Oxygen on Titan just to see what happens.
Parsec
5 / 5 (2) Sep 22, 2010
This article is a rehash of really old news. One point of disagreement with the article however. Just because there is no liquid water on the surface doesn't mean that ice doesn't exist on the surface. In addition, it also doesn't mean that Titan cannot have liquid water in its interior.

Since its likely that the atmosphere is maintained by an exchange of an interior methane reservoir, if there is a liquid ocean beneath the surface of Titan then its being fed hydrocarbons from the surface.
Javinator
5 / 5 (2) Sep 22, 2010
Titan's water-ice crust, he explains, has similar properties to the permafrost found in Siberia.


I don't believe they're suggesting that water does not exist on Titan.
Shaffer
4 / 5 (1) Sep 27, 2010
Oily lakes, OMG, BP is screwing everything up...