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Write every day no exceptions – Titan June 19, 2010

Posted by Conventioneering in spaaaaaaaaaaace, write every day no exceptions.
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Continuing my astrobiology theme from yesterday, let’s talk Titan.

Titan is currently the most exciting thing in the solar system (besides Earth, of course, but since we’re on it most of us have this strange habit of not noticing how exciting it is.). Titan is to the 21st century what Mars was to the 19th – a strange, distant world full of infinite possibility. Where with a Mars we got excited because some guy thought he saw canals on the surface (what turned out to be the insides of his own eyeballs!), on Titan we’re excited because there’s molecules that are going somewhere.

As I understand it (and, again, as I say in every one of these posts: I don’t have internet while writing these, so I’m probably wrong about some of the science here), there’s methane, nitrogen, ammonia, argon, ethane, propane, carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, and cyanogen (spelling?) on Titan. There’s some compound (acetone? Acetylene? Ammonia? I can’t remember and I don’t have internet where I am!) that’s disappearing when it shouldn’t be.

There’s a couple of possibilities as to why this stuff keeps going poof on Titan’s surface. All the theories I’ve heard involve some kind of mad-crazy chemical process. Some of these processes may be fairly mundane, just the normal interaction of molecules (well, normal by some standards anyway). But the theory that really excites people is the idea that maybe, just maybe on Titan’s surface there exists an exotic form of life that consumes this compound, kind of like how we need oxygen and water to live.

Again, I’m no a biochemist (and thank god, organic chemistry is some of the most wall-bangingly difficult stuff in school. Ask any biologist or chemist that doesn’t specialize in the stuff and you’ll get shudders). And just like with Europa, life on Titan, if it exists, is probably tiny and analogous to Earth bacteria. This would still be super-exciting because it’d be proof that life CAN exist elsewhere, even if it’s small.

But what if it wasn’t small?

I’m more interested in what kind of culture Titanites would develop . I can’t speculate very far in this space and without a lot more research, but I can make baseless conjecture (and who knows, maybe some day I can write a golden-age sci-fi novel about it).

First, life on Titan would probably have wings. There’s just no evolutionary reason not to. The atmosphere on Titan is so starkly ideal for flight that it sends aeronautics experts into a frothing stupor. Titan has the unlikely combination of very low gravity and a very dense atmosphere. Its winds are, as far as I’m aware, not particularly violent (unlike, say, Jupiter or Saturn.) This means that anything which flies needs a very short wing surface area to get into the air. You, a mere human, could probably fly by just stretching out a bedsheet attached to your ankles and running really fast (granted, not very well, and we’re ignoring the fact that you’d suffocate and freeze to death first).

Since flight is so easy, it’d be silly for things not to evolve it. Ground based creatures would still exist, as would, perhaps, beings that swim in Titan’s methane seas, but there would be a vast variety of things that soar through the atmosphere. There might even be gas-bag creatures, things that take in the abundant hydrogen from Titan’s atmosphere and use it to float gently above the ground (see the TV series ‘Alien Planet’ for a few examples of such creatures). Imagine a flighted species that builds vast towers on mountaintops to glide from, great rookeries. I again say that they would probably not see in visible light due to how little there is on Titan and also because of the moon’s thick atmosphere; more likely they’d see in some other wavelength (infrared, probably. I am fond of this as a way of seeing). Unlike the inhabitants of Europa, however, they might be able to see Saturn through the clouds, a looming ringed presence in the sky. Their early ancestors likely worshiped the ringed sky-being in much the same way Earth-people worshiped the sun. Maybe they gave their own names and personalities to the other moons of Saturn, and made up legends about why they disappear and re-appear. Maybe they eventually built great telescopes to watch the skies, and maybe they came to look at the small blue-green planet that sometimes appeared in their sky.

And maybe they dismissed the possibility of life there completely. After all, that huge and distant world’s gravity is far too heavy, its atmosphere too thin, the temperature too hot for methane to exist in liquid form on its surface. Life couldn’t possibly exist there.

Or maybe they’d look and hope, like we do, that someone’s looking back.

Next, I’m either going to talk about a hypothetical martian-venusian war that took place long before the first humans. Of course, I said nonfiction every day no exceptions, so I may be straying too far from my subject…

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Comments»

1. Jevasi - July 29, 2010

Heh I actually watched Alien Planet, and looked up the book that it was based off of. I have to admit that I have always been fascinated by theoretical exobiology, though I always thought more about Europa than Titan, so this and the previous entry were great reads.
Sorry you probably have no clue who I am, I found my way over here from the Myst Movie site.

Jensen - July 29, 2010

I’m glad you enjoyed, and welcome!


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