Potentially Unlimited Energy Sources for Centuries to Come
Jul 6, 2011
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 findings of NASA's Cassini spacecraft. The hydrocarbons literally rain from the sky. Huge deposits are collected in lakes and dune formations. Practically speaking, commercialization is decades away and maybe the stuff of the next century. Nonetheless, Saturn's Titan has the potential to become a permanent game changer sooner rather than later.
"Titan is just covered in carbon-bearing material, it's a giant factory of organic chemicals," says Ralph Lorenz, Cassini radar team member from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. "This vast carbon inventory is an important window into the geology and climate history of Titan . 1)
The Titan Mare Explorer, or TiME, will perform the first direct inspection of an ocean environment beyond Earth by landing in, and floating on, a large methane-ethane sea on this murky and complex moon.
The TiME capsule launches circa 2016 and reaches Titan by 2023, by parachuting onto the moon's second-largest northern sea, the Ligeia Mare. For 3 months, the capsule will study the composition and behavior of the sea and its interaction with Titan's weather and climate. TiME also seeks to gather evidence of the complex organic chemistry that may be active on Titan . 2)
A lightning storm has been raging on Saturn since mid-January, making the tempest the longest-lasting storm ever detected in our solar system, astronomers noted recently. The lightning flashes are 10,000 times stronger than flashes on Earth according to research team member Georg Fischer, of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Lightning storms on Saturn usually occur about 35 degrees south of Saturn's equator in a place scientists call Storm Alley. The internal energy of Saturn appears to power the storms and triggers vertical convection, or heat transfer, of water clouds, the Austrian Academy's Fischer said.
Confirmation earlier this year of Titan's hydrocarbon lakes makes the Saturn moon the first place other than Earth where open bodies of liquid have been found. This means that the strength of Titan's magnetic field is constantly changing , leaving its surface more vulnerable to damaging cosmic rays. 3) 4) Without stable protection from radiation "the existence of life is very unlikely" according to Morente. The presence of crude oil implies that an animal life form, at one point, existed on that planet, and their bodies decomposed without enough air/gas to decompose properly (as is how the crude oil formed on earth). We won't know for certain until the heavenly body is explored more fully.
Titan's water is frozen into chunks as hard as granite. If those ice "rocks" melted, the environment could become more hospitable to the building blocks of life. With liquid water, the planet could host the formation of amino acids and then full proteins, which drive all biochemistry and set the stage for more complex molecules like a huge prebiotic casserole. 5) 6)
Cassini's observations of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, have given scientists a glimpse of what Earth might have been like before life evolved. They now believe Titan possesses many parallels to Earth, including lakes, rivers, channels, dunes, rain, snow, clouds, mountains and possibly volcanic activity.
The spray of icy particles from the surface jets collectively forms a towering plume three times taller than the width of Enceladus. The moon’s diameter is about 500 kilometers (around 300 miles). It is believed that the plume feeds particles into Saturn's most expansive ring, the E ring. Already in the extended mission, the spacecraft has come as close as 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the surface of the moon. 7)
The science goals of space study on Saturn are to understand the sources, as well as the losses of Saturn's plasma, its acceleration and transport, and the contributions that plasma makes to satellite resurfacing and to Titan's atmospheric processes. These processes all significantly affected the evolution of the Saturn system over its nearly 5 billion years of existence. By understanding the changes brought about by these processes and by sampling the isotopic and elemental composition within Saturn's vast magnetosphere, we will add yet another piece to the puzzle of how the solar system formed and evolved. 8)
Suppose there is a large quantity of natural gas on Titan. How would this natural gas be extracted and transported to the earth? These details will be the subject of the science this century and next.
Floating Liquefied Natural Gas (FLNG) is an innovative technology designed to enable the development of offshore gas resources that would otherwise remain untapped . 9) Due to environmental or economic factors, it is not viable to develop these sources via a land-based LNG operation. FLNG technology also provides a number of environmental and economic advantages.
Since all processing is done at the gas field, there is no requirement for long pipelines to shore, compression units to pump the gas to shore, dredging and jetty construction, and onshore construction of an LNG processing plant. These advantages significantly reduce the environmental footprint anywhere.
In addition, environmental disturbance will be minimized during decommissioning because the facility can easily be disconnected and removed before being refurbished and re-deployed elsewhere. Translating these manufacturing advantages onto Titan, the natural gas could be extracted and refined without leaving the planet. Much of the refinery and transport might be done by unmanned robotic vehicles, dirigibles and robots emulating human mechanical capabilities. There are other technological issues to overcome like transporting the FLNG from Titan to the earth or to nearby planets where significant manufacturing can occur.