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SFS News: Titan's Surface Organics Surpass Oil Reserves on E

Posted by: Rob Goldsmith - Wed Feb 13, 2008 8:49 pm
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SFS News: Titan's Surface Organics Surpass Oil Reserves on E 
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Post SFS News: Titan's Surface Organics Surpass Oil Reserves on E   Posted on: Wed Feb 13, 2008 8:49 pm
Saturn's orange moon Titan has hundreds of times more liquid hydrocarbons than all the known oil and natural gas reserves on Earth, according to new data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. The hydrocarbons rain from the sky, collecting in vast deposits that form lakes and dunes.

The new findings from the study led by Ralph Lorenz, Cassini radar team member from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md., are reported in the Jan. 29 issue of the Geophysical Research Letters.

"Titan is just covered in carbon-bearing material—it's a giant factory of organic chemicals," said Lorenz. "This vast carbon inventory is an important window into the geology and climate history of Titan."

At a balmy minus 179 degrees Celsius (minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit), Titan is a far cry from Earth. Instead of water, liquid hydrocarbons in the form of methane and ethane are present on the moon's surface, and tholins probably make up its dunes. The term "tholins"was coined by Carl Sagan in 1979 to describe the complex organic molecules at the heart of prebiotic chemistry.

Cassini has mapped about 20 percent of Titan's surface with radar. Several hundred lakes and seas have been observed, with each of several dozen estimated to contain more hydrocarbon liquid than Earth's oil and gas reserves. The dark dunes that run along the equator contain a volume of organics several hundred times larger than Earth's coal reserves.

Proven reserves of natural gas on Earth total 130 billion tons, enough to provide 300 times the amount of energy the entire United States uses annually for residential heating, cooling and lighting. Dozens of Titan's lakes individually have the equivalent of at least this much energy in the form of methane and ethane.

"This global estimate is based mostly on views of the lakes in the northern polar regions. We have assumed the south might be similar, but we really don't yet know how much liquid is there," said Lorenz. Cassini's radar has observed the south polar region only once, and only two small lakes were visible. Future observations of that area are planned during Cassini's proposed extended mission.

Scientists estimated Titan's lake depth by making some general assumptions based on lakes on Earth. They took the average area and depth of lakes on Earth, taking into account the nearby surroundings, like mountains. On Earth, the lake depth is often 10 times less than the height of nearby terrain.



"We also know that some lakes are more than 10 meters or so deep because they appear literally pitch-black to the radar. If they were shallow we'd see the bottom, and we don't," said Lorenz.

The question of how much liquid is on the surface is an important one because methane is a strong greenhouse gas on Titan as well as on Earth, but there is much more of it on Titan. If all the observed liquid on Titan is methane, it would only last a few million years, because as methane escapes into Titan's atmosphere, it breaks down and escapes into space. If the methane were to run out, Titan could become much colder. Scientists believe that methane might be supplied to the atmosphere by venting from the interior in cryovolcanic eruptions. If so, the amount of methane, and the temperature on Titan, may have fluctuated dramatically in Titan's past.

"We are carbon-based life, and understanding how far along the chain of complexity towards life that chemistry can go in an environment like Titan will be important in understanding the origins of life throughout the universe," added Lorenz.

Cassini's next radar flyby of Titan is on Feb. 22, when the radar instrument will observe the Huygens probe landing site.

For images and more information visit: http://www.nasa.gov/cassini and http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov .

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Cassini-Huygens mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The radar instrument was built by JPL and the Italian Space Agency, working with team members from the United States and several European countries.

Please feel free to discuss this topic further...

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Post    Posted on: Thu Feb 14, 2008 9:26 am
Let's hope this news will find it's way to the HQ's of Exxon, Dupont and other oilcompanies. I'm sure they can spare a few billion to create something usefull.


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Post    Posted on: Thu Feb 14, 2008 11:26 am
This may make Titan for a pit stop location for missions and journeys to the outer solar system.

It will be possible to refuel there - which is interesting in particular for spacecrafts and vehicle wanted to return to Earth from those regions.

In particular it reminds me to SpaceX's rockets that consume cerosene. In the Technology section there is an article about resreach of ways to recycle carbondioxide into hydrocarbons first - methane, ethane... - and then into cerosene. Perhaps such ways might be modified so that cerosene can be made of Titan's methane and ethane.

It also might be brought to Mars, Cerese and other planets to support travels all over the solar system.



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Post    Posted on: Thu Feb 14, 2008 1:19 pm
Or placed in earth orbit.


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Post    Posted on: Mon Feb 18, 2008 7:23 am
Let's say in orbits of both planets or/and even more because it might reduce propellant costs - the vehicle from Titan to Mars wouldn't have to carry fuel and oxidizer for LEO but for LMO only which I think to be less.

Deliveries to Earth can be delivered from Titan to Mars and the vehicle can return to Titan without having to go to Earth. Another vehicle would deliver it from MArs to Earth.

This way both vehicles - that from Titan to Mars and that from Earth to Mars - could go to Mars in parallel. This would enable a higher frequency of deliveries from Titan because the vehciel going to Titan would avoid the time to go to Earth.



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