Titanic fog!

By Phil Plait | August 27, 2009 2:09 pm
Fog on Titan!

Geez, more awesome solar system news?

Yup. Planetary astronomer Mike Brown has just announced an amazing discovery: he and his team have found fog at Titan’s south pole!

Why is this so cool? Because it indicates there is a lot of liquid methane on Titan’s surface, something that wasn’t known for sure until now. We’ve been seeing lakes of something on Saturn’s giant moon for quite some time now, but it wasn’t clear what it was. Read Mike’s post for the details, but basically the two main suspects were ethane and methane. Ethane can rain out of the atmosphere of Titan and form lakes, but it just sits there and is essentially inert after that.

Methane, on the other hand, is more volatile, and can act on Titan the way water does on Earth: after condensing and falling out of the atmosphere as rain and form lakes, it can evaporate away… and that makes it far more interesting. Now that Mike’s team has seen fog on Titan — and methane is the most likely cause of it — then that means the evaporation has been detected for the first time.

On Earth, water is necessary for life and can exist in many forms (ice, liquid, gas). I’m not saying there’s life on Titan, nor is Mike. But it does mean that there is another large body in the solar system that has a chemical compound that goes through the same phases as water does here.

That makes Titan even more dynamic than we previously thought. It has a thick atmosphere, decent gravity, and a substance that acts like water. What else will we find as we observe this mammoth moon even more?

P.S. Mike’s journal paper is online. Now I have some fun reading to do.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Science

Comments (52)

  1. Just be careful where you sail your ship.

    (Hmm…does Mike feel like the king of the world now?)

  2. “What else will we find as we observe this mammoth moon even more?”
    A civilization of methane drinking ice critters? :P Awesome picts as always.

  3. Bahdum (aka Richard)

    Maybe we’ll find Vorlons there.

  4. If I had infinite resources I would be so tempted to send a small mining ship to the asteroid belt to get the raw materials necessary to build a larger, more robust ship that can mine oxygen from the appropriate gaseous strata of Jupiter so as to flood Titan with it, and then send over a single match.

  5. drow

    Pirates of the Titan Sea! Arr, matey!

  6. Didn’t you just cover Mike Brown the other day? I didn’t expect him to reveal more awesome Titan news so fast!

    You know, even if we did discover methane-based microorganisms on Saturn’s moon, the denialists would come out in hordes…

    @fluffy: No, no, that’s all wrong. We want to condense Jupiter and start fusion such that we get a second star, so the Galilean satellites become a mini solar system (er, Solar-Jovian binary star system technically) a la “Lucifer” in Arthur Clarke’s 2010: Odyysey Two :D

  7. Maybe we’ll find Vorlons there.

    Maybe we will find some methane breathing ice worms!

    I’d love it if we could find even the smallest hint of life on another planet before I am dead.

  8. Very interesting. Methane ice is more dense than the liquid, right? (I found that the melting point is -182.5 c, but not much about the frozen density. And, I have no idea what the atmospheric pressure is on Titan.) It would be interesting to see what kinds of changes are involved with having your primary solvent being not only organic, but with a more dense solid phase.

    Imagine if water were more dense as a solid. It would change everything. The oceans would freeze from the bottom up and there could be little life in much of the abyss. There would be no spring and fall turnover in northern lakes, with the concurrent plankton blooms. Heck, I don’t even know if oceanic upwelling would occur.

    All of that suggests that life, if it is there, would be really different, and very interesting. Send some samples to my lab, OK? ;-)

  9. IVAN3MAN

    MikeG:

    I have no idea what the atmospheric pressure is on Titan.

    Surface pressure on Titan: 146.7 kPa* (1467 mbar).

    Average sea-level pressure on Earth: 101.325 kPa* (1013.25 mbar).

    So, the surface pressure on Titan is about 44.8% greater than Earth’s surface pressure.

    *Source: Wikipedia.

  10. Alan

    Every time I see stories like this, I can’t help but think of this book: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camelot_30K

  11. this is cool as hell.

  12. Cool news. I like my headline better though.

    Love that Mike wants people to do a peer review on his paper… very cool.

  13. IVAN3MAN, Thanks for the info. Can anyone point to a phase chart for methane? All I can find is stuff about methane hydrates.

    General note, in case it isn’t obvious from my ignorant questions, I am not the Mike that wrote the paper.

  14. Procyan

    Where do primordial hydrocarbons on Titan come from? Is the methane something that formed there or do all/most planets get an “allotment” during accretion. I add that although facinated by the possiblity of methane-based life, I don’t think the methane we see on Titan is at all likely to be biogenic.

    OPPS, this just in ***At last humans, you see how the universe is constructed to provide our Titanic home with just the right mix of sunlight, methane and mineral water. See how the methane ice sinks when it freezes, thus preserving the liquid surface to exchange with our ever freshening breeze. The Titropic Principle rains :)

  15. Ivan

    this is awesome.

  16. Procyan, that’s a great question! Wish I knew.

    Actually, does anyone have a good reference in general to explain why some big satellites end up totally different than the others around a planet? Especially why do we have the sulfurous Io and the “wet” icy Europa instead of a more even distribution of elements & compounds across Jupiter’s moons?? FWIW I’m not afraid of the chemistry, but I have no clue on the astronomy behind that one! At least he planets have a rough pattern of rocky, rocky, rocky, rocky, gassy, gassy, gassy, etc…

  17. Naomi

    NICE. I’ve just found my topic for my Planets & Planetary Systems talk.

  18. Petrolonfire

    he and his team have found fog at Titan’s south pole!

    Why is this so cool?

    Because temperatures on Titan are well below freezing? ;-)

    Awesome discovery. Well done to Mike Brown & team. Go science! 8)

    @ 18. Naomi Says:

    NICE. I’ve just found my topic for my Planets & Planetary Systems talk.

    When’s that due – tomorrow? ;-)

    (Some of us always leave these things to the last nano-second, I’m one of them. :-) )

  19. Crux Australis

    “Titan” by Stephen Baxter is the awesomest sci-fi story.

  20. Plutonium being from Pluto

    @ 7. TechSkeptic Says:

    Maybe we’ll find Vorlons there. Maybe we will find some methane breathing ice worms!

    Or some plutonium based lifeforms mayhaps? ;-)

    @ 20 Crux Australis :

    “Titan” by Stephen Baxter is the awesomest sci-fi story.

    Actually I prefer John Varley’s SF novel which was titled ‘Titan’ (Futura, 1979) as well better. ;-)

    Varley’s book was a rollicking adventure where Baxter’s one was bleak & frankly a bit depressing.

    *
    *
    *
    *
    *
    ***** SPOILER WARNING *****
    *
    *
    *
    *

    ****** Below are spoilers to these novels *****

    I think Baxter killed off the most sympathetic character’s Siobhan Libet and Nicola Mott too early. Paula Benacerraf as main character was interesting one but verydiferent & hard to accept in some ways. An astronuat grandma hmm..?

    It took Baxter too long IMHON to move to Titan itself rather than politics and the hard to believe USAF vs NASA war. That kinda lost my suspension of disbeleif right there. Would the airforce (well rogue elements therof) shoot down the space shuttle? Really? :roll:

    Mostly though what I found was that so much of Stephen Baxter’s book was just so unrelentingly grim it kind of put me off a bit.

    Then that last section on Titan Future just didn’t quite jell – it seemed too unlikely, too dream-sequence surreal and like an entirely separate (& perhaps better!) story.

    Don’t get me wrong – I loved the good science and astronomy in Baxter’s book and enjoyed reading it at times – Baxter’s desciption of Titan was mindblowingly good & all.

    But Varley’s book was much more fun and had far more likeable, interesting characters. Cirocco “Rocky” Jones and her partner Gaby were an awesome couple of lead characters who worked a lot better to my way of thinking. I even have to wonder if they inspired Xena & Gabrielle! ;-)

    Okay Varley’s novel wasn’t all “Titan” based & maybe its science was a lot less realistic & detailed but it seemed more balnced,comes out ahead in my .. er..book! ;-)

    Plus Varley’s version even had artwork in it too!
    BTW. If anyone from Hollywood is reading , Varley’s book could make a great movie! ;-)

    Both Varley’s & Baxter’s ‘Titan’s are good and worth reading though. :-)
    —-
    (Not meaning to hijack this into a book review thread or anything! Just my two bobs worth.)

  21. Jamesonian

    Doesn’t this strengthen the case for interplanetary cows? Where’s the CNN headline?!?

  22. Dunc

    So what’s the term equivalent to “hydrological cycle” when dealing with methane?

  23. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    I just read that the Apollo Astronauts gave the Dutch a petrified wood moon rock. That should convince the doubters.

  24. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    I think it came from some kind of a cheese tree.

  25. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    NASA is stumped on this one.

  26. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    I got mine from a Wheaties box.

  27. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    This is equal to using feet instead of meters on the oops factor.

  28. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    NASA in Dutch over moon rocks. Petrified or mortified?

  29. !AstralProjectile

    No Sirens of Titan references yet? Sirens luring sailors to their death on an ethane sea?

    PS: Varley’s Gaia series would be a great, but very long movie. IMO Blue Thunder has a real chance to be a great movie.

  30. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.
  31. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Perhaps the moon rocks evolved into petrified wood.

  32. Nigel Depledge

    Mike G (8) said:

    I found that the melting point is -182.5 c, but not much about the frozen density

    Water is the only substance known to my chemistry and physics teachers that expands as it freezes. Everything else (as far as I can tell) continues to contract.

  33. Nigel Depledge

    Crux Australis said:

    “Titan” by Stephen Baxter is the awesomest sci-fi story.

    I actually found it rather annoying. Not because of the politics (although that, in its own way, was slightly annoying) but because of the behaviour of the “experienced” astronauts. I can suspend disbelief to a certain extent, but they all would have been thoroughly aware of the hazards and would have behaved appropriately. I can’t say any more without giving away parts of the story, but I hope you can recognise the scene to which I refer.

  34. Cheyenne

    Amazing to see that these other bodies in just our own solar system are so dynamic. I wonder what else is out there? Luckily astronomy is just tearing it up lately – there are new major discoveries every day it seems. I just wish the general public had a greater interest and appreciation for this kind of work that is being done.

  35. !AstralProjectile

    From Wiki:

    Elemental bismuth is one of very few substances of which the liquid phase is denser than its solid phase (water being the best-known example). Bismuth expands 3.32% on solidification; therefore, it was long an important component of low-melting typesetting alloys, which needed to expand to fill printing molds.[1]

  36. Woof

    MikeG @ 13 -

    Phase chart and methane poop here: http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=methane

    Pluto @ 21 -

    “unrelentingly grim” is how I’d describe Baxter’s Titan as well.

  37. coolstar

    Nice work and important, indeed, but “amazing”? Not really, what would be more amazing is if NO evidence for liquid methane on Titan had ever been found, as that would be much harder to explain, given all the other data.

  38. Plutonium being from Pluto

    @ 34. Nigel Depledge Says:

    … I actually found [“Titan” by Stephen Baxter] rather annoying. Not because of the politics (although that, in its own way, was slightly annoying) but because of the behaviour of the “experienced” astronauts. I can suspend disbelief to a certain extent, but they all would have been thoroughly aware of the hazards and would have behaved appropriately. I can’t say any more without giving away parts of the story, but I hope you can recognise the scene to which I refer.

    WARNING POSSIBLE SPOILERS BELOW

    WARNING POSSIBLE SPOILERS BELOW

    WARNING POSSIBLE SPOILERS BELOW

    Do you mean the incident with Libet & the solar storm?

    Or the scene in the beginning where the shuttle is crash-landed?

    Or Nicola Mott’s error on the flight down to Titan’s surface?

    Mind you, I find it easy enough to suspend disbelief when it comes to human error. Even human error by highly trained and experienced individuals – especially when they are tired, stressed, sick and generally not at their best.

    In real life astronauts have been known to foul up; eg. Grissom’s hatch-blowing, the ISS lost toolbag, etc .. Plus with time astronauts have been known to go a bit loopy and lose their better judgement; eg. Edgar Mitchell, Ms nappy-wearing would-be kidnapper, etc ..

    We’re all fallible humans* & I for one, would find astronauts on such a long mission under such weird, depressing, stressful circumstances as Baxter puts them in doing a flawless, error-free job far *less* believable.

    Personally, the gloomy pessimism and political sledgehammering esp. the unlikely rogue USAF vs NASA sub-plot is what let that novel down most. Bits of it were brilliant but other sections just had me rolling my eyes or wanting to put it down & not pick it up again.

    I don’t know if Baxter is clinically depressed or anything but the stark lack of anything approaching hope there & in some of his other books can get really overly gloomy and unpleasant. Baxter writes well & with some very interesting hard science ideas and some of his stuff is so wonderful but sometimes I just wish he’d take a prozac or something & just lighten up some!

    IMHON Baxter’s best novel would be ‘Voyage’ or maybe ‘Raft’ or ‘Flux’.

    ———————————

    * Or in my case a fallible Plutonium based sentient lifeform from Pluto! ;-)

    “There were no fires in the Martian desert. In fact, of all the worlds in the solar system only Earth with its oxygen-rich atmosphere knew fire.”
    - Page 43, ‘Voyage’, Stephen Baxter, Harper-Collins, 1996.

  39. Spectroscope

    So fog is now known on three worlds right – Earth, Mars & Titan?

    Do we know of any other planets or moons where fog exists?
    Either confirmed or theoretical?

  40. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Nick Jagger petrified……Who’d a thunk it?

  41. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    I thought the Stones were real.

  42. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    If they would give the Astronauts samples, they wouldn’t have to take them.

  43. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Is that a banana in your pocket? No, it’s moon rocks.

  44. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Let’s hide them with the original tape.

  45. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    NASA Collectibles

  46. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    At least they didn’t measure the footprints in feet.

  47. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Bad Astronomy usually has something on NASA.

  48. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    If NASA is looking for incompetence, I will do twice the job for half the price.

  49. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    How can you screw up rocks?

  50. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Sorry Mick! I just noticed the typo! On the bright side you still have your Stones.

  51. Anyone can delete this spammer?

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