Posts Tagged ‘Titan’


Monday, August 25th, 2008 by Evan Finnes

Can life exist in the harsh conditions of our solar system? Could life evolve and survive under the extreme heat and pressure of Venus, under the icy crust of Mars, or in the oceans of Europa? To find out just how resilient life is, scientists have been looking for answers in some of the most hostile environments on Earth. And in recent years, life has been discovered in the most extreme conditions, previously thought to be uninhabitable. These microorganisms are sometimes called extremophiles.

There are many different classes of extremophiles, which are named according to the environmental conditions in which they thrive. For example, a thermophile is an organism which lives in conditions between 60˚ and 80˚ Celsius. Recently, a thermophile was discovered nearly two miles beneath the Earth’s surface in the Mponeng Gold mine of South Africa. This particular discovery is interesting because these thermophiles are completely devoid of sunlight, surviving on the byproducts of radioactive decay.

Where might we look for extremophiles outside of Earth? Mars is a good place to start. With the recent confirmation of ice in the crust, it is possible that water has trickled deep into the Martian interior, where thermophiles can survive off of radioactive materials like previously discussed. On Earth, we have discovered halophiles, which require high amounts of salt to survive; recently, the Phoenix Lander discovered several different types of salts in the Martian soil, which could be another location to search for life. Other types of extremophiles discovered on Earth may also apply to Mars, such as: xerophiles, hypoliths, and radioresistant extremophiles.

Europa is another great place to look for extremophiles. It is theorized that there is a global ocean beneath Europa’s thick layer of surface ice. Sattelite images of Europa’s surface show a complex system of tectonic activity–places where the ice has broken and liquid water has upwelled to the surface and refrozen. This tectonic activity is likely the result of tidal flexing, due to the gravitational pull of Jupiter. This tidal flexing may also produce hydrothermal vents. Earth’s hydrothermal vents are host to a large amount of biological activity, meaning Europa is a very promising place to look for extremophiles.

There are future plans in the works to search for extremophiles in the Martian crust. Astrobiological missions to Europa, Titan, or elsewhere are probably deep into the future. Given the amount of life discovered in the harshest places on Earth, I will be surprised if we find that our solar system is devoid of life.

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Saturn’s Mysterious Moon

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008 by Evan Finnes

Saturn’s largest moon (the solar system’s second largest moon), Titan, was discovered in 1655 by Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens. In 1944, Gerard Kuiper demonstrated that Titan’s dense atmosphere has the spectral signature of methane.  Up until the arival of the Voyager 1 in 1980 and Cassini-Huygens in 2004, Titan was somewhat of a mystery with its surface features hidden beneath thick layers of clouds and haze.

Although the surface was still hidden, Voyager was able to learn much about the moon’s planet-like atmosphere. Titan’s huge atmosphere creates a surface pressure of 1.5 bars, a temperature of 94K, and a density of 5.3kg/m3.  This surface temperature is close to the triple point of methane, which could mean that Titan has a methane cycle similar to Earth’s hydrological cycle.           

In 2005, ESA’s Huygens Probe was released from Cassini and entered Titan’s atmosphere. It discovered that Titan and Earth’s atmosphere share a similar altitude/temperature relationship.  On Earth, the temperature decreases with altitude in the troposphere, increases in the stratosphere due to the absorption of UV rays in the ozone, decreases in the mesosphere due to decreasing atmospheric density, and finally increases in the thermosphere due to the release of thermal energy caused by the break up of molecules by solar radiation.  On Titan, the temperature decreases with altitude in the troposphere, and increases in the stratosphere. 

With several Cassini flybys, Titan’s mysterious surface is finally being revealed.  Titan’s surface is incredibly Earth-like with rain-cut river beds, hydrocarbon lakes, and giant equatorial sand dunes.  Much is still unknown about the surface, such as the depth of the lakes, and how the sand dunes are formed.  Cassini Radar observations also confirmed that the entire crust of Titan is floating on top of a massive water ocean.              

With a two year extention to the Cassini mission, including 26 more Titan fly-bys, there is definitely more discoveries to come.  Titan is well worth exploring with complex orbiters and landers, not only to explore Titan’s exotic surface features but also to look for signs of extremophiles.  Any such mission is far off, so in the meantime we can enjoy the only sounds ever recorded on a body other than Earth which were recorded by the Huygens Probe as it descended through Titan’s atmosphere: Sounds of Titan

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