Orbiting the sixth planet in our solar system is a lovely little chunk of rock and gas known as Titan. As the largest of Saturn’s 62 moons, Titan has been somewhat of a known quantity for quite a while; in fact, it was discovered in 1655 and is the second-largest moon in our solar system. But it was only recently that we were able to look beyond its dense atmosphere and see what lies beneath – and what lies beneath is, I daresay, awesome.
Let’s start with the basics: Titan is 50% larger than our moon and almost twice as massive. It even takes up more space than Mercury, although most of this is due to the large atmosphere with Mercury completely lacks. Its atmosphere is almost completely composed of nitrogen with trace amounts of hydrogen cyanide. None of this really matters though, because there is no oxygen in the atmosphere…for now.
Now onto some of the cooler facts: first, the atmosphere is so dense and the gravity so minimal that lift can be achieved very easily – so easily in fact that a human could strap wings onto their arms and flap away. However, the most interesting thing about Titan is that it is the only other body in our solar system known to be able to support an element in a liquid state. This was confirmed when the Cassini spacecraft identified lakes on the surface using infrared photography. Don’t grab your shorts yet though – water ice is theorized to exist on the planet, but there is no ice in the lakes. What are they full of then? Oil. Lakes and lakes of oil.
To be fair, crude oil as we know it comes in many different forms and contains differing amounts of different types of hydrocarbons. For those that do not remember middle-school chemistry, hydrocarbons are molecules composed of hydrogen atoms attached to carbon atoms. However many carbon atoms there are in the hydrocarbon determines what type there are; for example, a hydrocarbon with one carbon (1C) is methane. A hydrocarbon with three carbon molecules (3C) is propane, 4C is butane, and so on. Most gasoline utilizes hydrocarbons 6C – 10C, including octane, which is 8C. All in all, Titan is estimated to contain more hydrocarbons in its vast lakes than the entire known reserves of oil and gas on Earth. Unfortunately, they are mostly the 1C and 2C type of hydrocarbons. But I digress.
There are obviously good reasons for colonizing Titan and some day it could prove to be very feasible. Atmospheric pressure is about 1.5 times what it is on Earth, or roughly the equivalent of being 5 meters under water. This means that structures and vehicles could be easily pressurized as opposed to trying to build a structure on the our moon, where there is no atmosphere. Liquid water, if found, would allow us to easily create oxygen. The abundance of ammonia would even make it perfect for growing plants on Titan.
Unfortunately, the challenges may be much greater than the benefits. Besides the temperature of Titan being extremely cold, production of heat would become a problem because it could so easily be lost to the dense atmosphere. Astronauts would also encounter a problem due to the reduced gravity of Titan; since it is only .14 times what it is on Earth, significant problems could result from human body structures literally deteriorating. Without the daily stresses put on the body by an environment with normal gravity, the body stops reinforcing bones, joint, and muscles, leading to extreme degeneration. No doubt some of these problems will be solved some day by science, but for now, Titan remains a very real (and very awesome) long-term target.