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Titanic Pirates of Methane Seas
March 15, 2007 9:10 PM   Subscribe

Titan Sea and Lake Superior
This movie, comprised of several detailed images taken by Cassini's radar instrument, shows bodies of liquid near Titan's north pole. These images show that many of the features commonly associated with lakes on Earth, such as islands, bays, inlets and channels, are also present on this cold Saturnian moon. They offer strong evidence that larger bodies seen in infrared images are, in fact, seas. These seas are most likely liquid methane and ethane.
Radar Shows Evidence of Seas
posted by y2karl (31 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Sweet. Now if only they can determine whether life can successfully exist in such ridiculous conditions. Liquid methane? Sounds kind of dangerous!
Does anyone know if there are comparable conditions here on earth? I don't think there are - even the most absurd extremophiles are found at temperatures and pressures nowhere near what it would take to have a sea of liquid carbon chains like that. (I think.)
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 9:40 PM on March 15, 2007


BlackLeotard: Life, as we know it on earth, requires water.

Also, liquid "carbon chains" exist at room temprature, and furthermore methane and ethane are monomers. Also the reason they are liquid there is because it's cold, not because it's hot or high pressured.
posted by delmoi at 9:53 PM on March 15, 2007


Life, as we know it on earth, requires water.

Which, of course, begs the question of whether some form of life is possible in environments without water. My bet is yes, duh, why wouldn't it be?
posted by mediareport at 10:02 PM on March 15, 2007


Which, of course, begs the question of whether some form of life is possible in environments without water.

Giant Bluebirds perhaps?
posted by ChestnutMonkey at 10:08 PM on March 15, 2007


I predict there will be Xtreme Titanic Windsurfing sail boards and sportswear for sale before the end of this century. Or that there could be, if it weren't for those damn ET huggers.
posted by y2karl at 10:11 PM on March 15, 2007


My bet is yes, duh, why wouldn't it be?

Well, water makes things rather easy. It's a great little molecule.

-Lots and lots and lots of things are soluble in it. Ionic compounds (salts). A variety of organic compounds. Methane and ethane, not having a positively and negatively charged ends, are rather less useful from this point of view.

-It's liquid at the range of temperature at which things like DNA and RNA and proteins are functional and not denatured. This is mainly a product of evolution, or course, but it's more difficult to imagine what complex organic compounds would be reactive at the temperature at which methane is a liquid.

It's a bit like the idea of silicon-based life. Yes, silicon forms lots of bonds like carbon. But the silicon atom is so much bigger than carbon, so the variety of shapes and molecules you can make from it is more restricted than for carbon-based chemistry. Theoretically, silicon could be a replacement for carbon as a building block of life. In practical terms, carbon is so much easier.
posted by Jimbob at 10:26 PM on March 15, 2007 [3 favorites]


"liquid methane and ethane"

You could run SUVs, monster pickups and Hummers on that! Let's liberate it quick!
posted by davy at 10:28 PM on March 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


Scoop ships it is to Titan, then, mates, for loads of cold Stink. Weigh anchor!

Back through the Gap, past the Spot, round the Red Horn, and runnin' full sail downwell to old Blue with swag comin' out the scuppers.

We'll be rich beyond the dreams of avarice, I tell ya! Arrr!
posted by cenoxo at 10:34 PM on March 15, 2007 [4 favorites]


They offer strong evidence that larger bodies seen in infrared images are, in fact, seas. These seas are most likely liquid methane and ethane.

That sounds a lot like my first apartment.
posted by jimmythefish at 11:27 PM on March 15, 2007


I'm not fucking stupid, delmoi - I was recalling some old chemistry, not trying to prove myself. Don't talk down to me just because I threw some stuff out there. I'm aware that methane and ethane are gaseous at normal surface temperature and pressure, and that they would require very low temperatures to liquify, and I wasn't referring to high temperature extremophiles. There are low-temp extremophiles as well, which thrive in temperatures which do not approach that necessary to create a lake of ethane. Also, 2 carbons makes a chain, in my opinion.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 12:00 AM on March 16, 2007


Methane ice worms in the Gulf of Mexico — Redefining "Life as We Know it".
posted by cenoxo at 12:15 AM on March 16, 2007


Slightly related, there's water on Mars.
posted by rdr at 12:27 AM on March 16, 2007


If nothing else, 'tis vindication for Vonnegut's title...I will forever think "sirens" when I think of Titan.
posted by squasha at 1:19 AM on March 16, 2007


I bet there are creatures somewhere in the universe who'd say "21% oxygen? How can lifeforms on this planet keep from combusting constantly?" (Well, if they could speak English.)
posted by jiawen at 1:28 AM on March 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


Whatever the sea-dwellers of Titan are like, I'd lay odds their flatulence is redolent of wildflowers after a gentle rain.
posted by rob511 at 2:17 AM on March 16, 2007 [2 favorites]


I bet there are creatures somewhere in the universe who'd say "21% oxygen? How can lifeforms on this planet keep from combusting constantly?" (Well, if they could speak English.)

"Thinking meat? You're asking me to believe in thinking meat?"
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:27 AM on March 16, 2007 [6 favorites]


That story has always had one of my favorite sentences ever.

"Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal! "
posted by eriko at 4:32 AM on March 16, 2007


Effectively that's a whole sea made of liquified farts. The universe is a wonderful place.
posted by rhymer at 5:19 AM on March 16, 2007


The really funny thing about Titan is that while the seas aren't made of water, a lot of the "rocks" on the surface are. You could also build a boat out of water ice and go sailing...
posted by localroger at 5:33 AM on March 16, 2007


My bet is yes, duh, why wouldn't it be?

Partially because for all the fantasy-based ideas of life on other worlds devoid of structure similar to humans, a true scientific analysis of the universe would trace the origin of all of it to the Big Bang, which would suggest that regardless of what planet, all minerals and life are at least partially connected by the same set of base elements and biological developments. If there is life on other worlds, and I believe there is, the odds seem much higher that biological life would share more with biological life on Earth than not.

And as JimBob pointed out, water is a highly unique compound. It has properties and features that defy almost any other- properties which make it critical to the development of both planetary and biological life. It's of course possible that life could develop without water, just as it's of course possible everything is merely the creation of an omnipotent being. In both cases, there is no scientific evidence to back that claim whatsoever.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 6:12 AM on March 16, 2007


Yeah yeah, I know how unique water is, I used to teach biology. And, sure, there's an element of wishful thinking and love of science fiction involved. But I also think it's self-centered to imagine that the only planet on which life would have evolved would *have* to look a lot like the one we evolved on. Given what I've seen of the way nature regularly surprises standard science, I'll stick with my original bet, thanks - that the assumption that water is a necessary factor for all life everywhere in the universe will one day be proven incorrect.
posted by mediareport at 7:19 AM on March 16, 2007


I like the way exobiologist David Grinspoon, author of Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life, puts it in this interview:

But it is important to remain aware at some level that we don't really have a good reason to rule out other chemical systems. We should not convince ourselves, through consensus, that life can only be our own type. We fall back on, "Nobody has thought of another system that works as well." This argument is lousy, because we didn't think up carbon-based life, either. Much of what we know about the biology and evolution of life on Earth comes from "reverse engineering" -- taking it apart and trying to understand what makes it tick (like a crashed flying saucer at Area 51 ;^).

You can't really do a study of all possible routes to chemical complexity in every possible stable planetary environment. So for us to say, "Carbon based life works so well, and we can't think of another way, therefore it must be the only way," is like someone who doesn't know anything about building watches finding a beautiful time-piece and saying, "This is constructed so perfectly. This must be the only way a watch could be made."

I think we'll learn the truth about alternative life forms eventually, by finding one, not by thinking one up. So as we explore the solar system and the galaxy, we should always be on the lookout for strange kinds of chemistry that seem to require radical explanations.


The reviews section of his site includes this bit from Science magazine:

The need to be open-minded as to what constitutes a habitable planet and what forms extraterrestrial life might take is a recurring theme throughout the book. Many current ideas about extraterrestrial life are based on the assumption that liquid water is a basic requirement for life. If it is, the most likely places in the solar system to find life beyond Earth are Mars, which once had abundant water, and Europa, which probably does currently. Grinspoon uses the Gaia hypothesis (that Earth can in some sense be considered a "super-organism" of interconnected biogeochemical feedback mechanisms) and complexity theory to argue for a more generous definition of habitable worlds. He holds that a key characteristic of "living worlds" should be chemical disequilibrium, with large flows of energy and/or matter. By these criteria, he suggests, we should also be searching for cloud creatures on Venus and sulfur-based critters on the volcanic Jovian moon Io.

To me, that kind of thinking is the most properly tentative, skeptical, curious and open-minded scientific position about the possibility of life without water. But the folks who insist (that's really the right word) THERE CAN BE NO LIFE WITHOUT WATER will have none of that. They *know* it's impossible.

Whatever. That kind of certainty about the unknown is not science.
posted by mediareport at 7:42 AM on March 16, 2007


a true scientific analysis of the universe would trace the origin of all of it to the Big Bang, which would suggest that regardless of what planet, all minerals and life are at least partially connected by the same set of base elements and biological developments

What biological development goes back to the big bang?

It seems to me that life developing on different planets would evolve independently and therefore have little to no similarity in biology.
posted by Bort at 9:15 AM on March 16, 2007


Is it wrong to miss Omni? I used to love that magazine.
posted by maxwelton at 9:54 AM on March 16, 2007


They called it the Moon of Dreams
posted by CynicalKnight at 11:11 AM on March 16, 2007


OK, so they have seas ... the obvious questions is, do they have surfable breaks?
posted by Relay at 11:32 AM on March 16, 2007


paging mr verne, your sea is ready: paging mr verne
posted by clavdivs at 11:41 AM on March 16, 2007


Bort - the basic qualities of the raw ingredients for life suggest that it's possible for similar biological systems to arise given similar starting points. You're probably right, though - instead of the nucleic and amino acids that we're familiar with, it's possible that different common structures arose first and evolved using those different building blocks.

Then again there's the idea of panspermia - that life arose (once or many times - doesn't really matter) and then disseminated throughout the universe (say, bacteria escape from one gravity well from either volcanic activity or from an asteroid collision and floats through space then enters the gravity well of another planetary body and thrives).
posted by porpoise at 1:26 PM on March 16, 2007


panspermia

Holy crap. Cosmic jizz on the face of the universe!

Porn pioneers again!
posted by tkchrist at 4:42 PM on March 16, 2007


Lake Titan, it's said, never gives up her dead when the gales of November come early...
posted by bicyclefish at 12:18 AM on March 17, 2007


Goodness. All this chemistry of life talk! Giving the notion of life being rooted in chemical evolution, it seems obvious to me that, given enough time, chemistry may well evolve into life in some radically different way from that on Earth.
posted by Goofyy at 8:08 AM on March 20, 2007


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