European Space Agency
January 21, 2005 12:18 PM   Subscribe

Instead of liquid water, Titan has liquid methane. Instead of silicate rocks, Titan has frozen water ice. Instead of dirt, Titan has hydrocarbon particles settling out of the atmosphere, and instead of lava, Titanian volcanoes spew very cold ice.
posted by Pretty_Generic (28 comments total)
Scientists have also recovered much data from Huygens that had been thought lost due to a communications failure.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 12:20 PM on January 21, 2005

Why isn't the adjective "Titanic"?
posted by Pretty_Generic at 12:23 PM on January 21, 2005

But other than that, its a fabulous vacation spot?

Actually, I've been following the Titan landing and so far, its pretty fascinating stuff. Alot more interesting than the early stages of Mars rover.
posted by fenriq at 12:30 PM on January 21, 2005

Titan also looks like close-ups of William Rehnquist's skin.
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:34 PM on January 21, 2005

it seems the larger, or at least heavier, part of the mission is being ignored in the Huygens limelight. Lots of pretty pictures.
posted by trinarian at 12:34 PM on January 21, 2005

Very Very cool! No pun intended.
posted by OmieWise at 12:34 PM on January 21, 2005

way more intresting the mars rover. To bad that stuff probably can't generate life, due to the non-polarity of the hydrocarbin molicules.
posted by delmoi at 12:35 PM on January 21, 2005

NPR's Morning Edition aired a segment this morning about how one scientist discovered there was a fatal flaw in the programming on Cassini which would have prevented it from hearing the Huygens probe after it landed. While they couldn't fix the problem itself, they were able to find another solution.
posted by onhazier at 12:36 PM on January 21, 2005

PG: "Communications failure" my ass. Some idiot forgot to turn the thing on. (via /.)
posted by iJames at 12:43 PM on January 21, 2005

Oh, and here's a blog kept by one of the scientists during the couple of days of acquiring and initially crunching the data. Some great pictures there. (And I don't just mean the cutie who wrote the thing.)
posted by iJames at 12:45 PM on January 21, 2005

Titan raw (SFW).

And somebody forgot to turn on Professor Atkinson's Doppler Wind oscillator. I hate it when that happens.
posted by steef at 12:46 PM on January 21, 2005

(And I don't just mean the cutie who wrote the thing.)

iJames is a pedophile. i swear that woman looks like she's 14.

Titan is way awesomer than Mars. Plus, we knew a lot less about it than we did about Mars, so it makes it that much cooler. There's nothing on Earth that compares to oceans of liquid methane - whereas Mars is pretty much like much of the western US.
posted by salad spork at 12:48 PM on January 21, 2005

Why isn't the adjective "Titanic"?

Yeah, you'd think that "Titanian" would be related to Titania.

I was always fascinated by the fact that Titan is the only other body in the solar system whose atmosphere is primarily nitrogen. Also the only one with an atmospheric pressure close to Earth's. I always thought those two coincidences were cool as a kid, and I remember being excited about the idea of Huygens when I first heard about it. Now that it's landed, a dozen years of space-geek anticipation have been fulfilled.
posted by Johnny Assay at 12:59 PM on January 21, 2005

Agreed, awesome. Something that puzzles me, is it really certain that water is needed to produce life rather than just a decent supply of energy, mobility and a variety of structural elements (liquid methane would seem to provide the first two)? If so, why, what's so special about water?
posted by grahamwell at 1:03 PM on January 21, 2005

I'm so glad ESA wised up and published the raw DISR images for all to see.
posted by brownpau at 1:07 PM on January 21, 2005

grahamwell, water does posess a lot of attributes quite helpful to life that liquid methane doesn't - for example water is polar so it dissolves polarized substances and salts easily. Methane on the other hand is about as nonpolar as you can get. It seems to me that because of methane's chemical structure, salts wouldn't be as easily dissolved, if they'd even dissolve at all. Because our paradigm of life is so fundamentally based on polarity vs. non-polarity, as well as the easy dissolution and absorption of many different substances, any life found on Titan would have to be completely different.

posted by salad spork at 1:28 PM on January 21, 2005

iJames, you beat me to the same story. Didn't mean to step on your toes!
posted by steef at 1:28 PM on January 21, 2005

What, no Sirens yet?

And they need to find some Titanite so I can fix my Wave Motion Gun.

/goofing off

I've been waiting to see these pictures since, well probably high school. Cassini was in planning that far back. This whole mission is just spectacular. This and the Galileo Jupiter mission have been such fun for Space Geek Zoogleplex!

grahamwell, liquid water is necessary for "our type" of carbon-based life operating at our ambient temperatures - it's the "solvent" in which all the other chemistry operates, and of course is a major component of terrestrial photosynthesis. It's not the only potential solvent or reactant for living things, in theory...

So it is "certainly" necessary for life like us. However it's theoretically possible for some other type of life to exist... and life on Titan's surface might have to be very different, operating at -179 F.

On preview: salad spork trumps.

Fred Pohl's Sailship People in their slushy arcologies come to mind.
posted by zoogleplex at 1:35 PM on January 21, 2005

We found Bizarro world!
posted by TwelveTwo at 2:22 PM on January 21, 2005

If you haven't seen the guys who zero-dayed the ESA on visualizations, check here. Purely space-art, but damned likeable space art. Scroll down for "rendered and colored" to see some Terragen-generated stuff. Backstory here. (by way of Slashdot, natch)
posted by Ogre Lawless at 3:21 PM on January 21, 2005

Hey, I was one of those zero-day'ers. And yes, it was really nice of them to release the images immediately.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:41 PM on January 21, 2005

From what I can remember, another interesting property of water (that other liquids do not possess) that helps sustain life is the fact that water expands when frozen (well, it initially contracts, until about 4 degrees C, and then suddenly starts to expand). This allows ice to float. And thus, water freezes from the top down, opposed to other liquids that freeze bottom up. Life would be impossible in seas, lakes, etc if water froze bottom up.

Also, the thermal conductivity of water is higher than any other liquid, but of ice and snow it's low. One advantage of having this high conductivity is that it allows mammals to be able to finely regulate body temperature through sweat - not possible with any other liquid because of the low levels of conductivity. On the other hand, since snow and ice have low thermal conductivity, a layer of ice on top of water (since it floats!) insulates water bodies and keeps them warmer.

There are other things too... surface tension, viscosity, etc that allow plants and animals to transport water through complex branches (veins, roots, etc) allowing life to become more complex. Other liquids would not be usable in complex life systems, most of which require that tension or viscosity.
posted by omair at 5:52 PM on January 21, 2005

Why isn't the adjective "Titanic"?
Maybe to avoid confusion with the pretty generic adjective.
So, Johnny Assay, what do you call something/one from Titania? A Titanianian?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 6:05 PM on January 21, 2005

posted by wobh at 7:29 PM on January 21, 2005

Following up on my own comment in the previous thread about this, during today's press conference* the imaging scientist said the light level was around 1% of what we see here on earth. I don't know much about lux and illuminance, but this would seem to indicate that it's like a very cloudy day, almost dusky. I'm surprised it's that bright, considering A) how far it is from the sun and B) its own cloudy haze cover. I wonder if the 1 percent comment was just a rhetorical value.

* Seeing an ESA press conference really makes me appreciate the job NASA does with PR. Gee, when a scientist is talking about a slide, you think maybe we want to see the slide? No, we want to see everyone in the room looking towards the slide!
posted by intermod at 8:20 PM on January 21, 2005

what's so special about water?

Alluded to in the earlier excellent description of water's polar nature (it has very strong bonds because of the two semi-naked protons that hang off the central oxygen - semi naked because the oxygen is so good at grabbing the electrons for prolonged periods) is that although it is a great semi-universal solvent, it is very bad at dissolving oily non-polar compounds. In fact, when placed in water most lipids will clump and then self-organise into coherent, persistent bilayers, the ancestor of cell membranes. Within a suitable medium of water containing sufficient lipids, these bilayers can even grow and reproduce. They are permeable to water itself, while becoming impermeable or semi-permeable to non-polar or large polar molecules. The ideal progenitors of proto-cells. Mix together bilayers, clay, a reducing environment, and an energy source and you basically have a massively parallel organic computer iterating through a myriad of replicatively-assisted protein conformations primed for rapid evolutionary development.
posted by meehawl at 8:56 PM on January 21, 2005

Why isn't the adjective "Titanic"?

same reason modern day inhabitants of the isle of Lesbos are known as Lesbosians (the original word has taken on specific meanings which would confuse matters if used generically).

cool stuff.
posted by mdn at 8:58 PM on January 21, 2005

Yes, very interesting comments here.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:48 PM on January 21, 2005

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