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Saturn’s Moon Titan A Flammable Giant?


By James Donahue

November 2004


The Cassini space probe made a remarkable discovery during its recent fly past Saturn’s planet-sized moon Titan.


NASA scientists say they believe the data picked up by the craft indicates the surface of Titan is a combustible combination of organic “snow” falling on lakes of liquid methane and ammonia ice flows.


Toby Owen, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, noted that the surface of Titan “could be very flammable. We can imagine flammable swamps . . . with liquid methane and flammable aerosols.”


In a sense, this is bad news for space researchers who are searching, at least subconsciously, for another place in our solar system to which the human race may someday flee. The Earth’s environment has been so severely damaged by overpopulation and pollutants that many scientists believe we are living on a dying planet.


It was once hoped that Titan, a moon nearly as large as Earth, was covered in frozen water and that life might be found deep under the ice cover. But this apparently is not the case. Titan is as void of an environment suitable for human life as are all of the other celestial bodies in our solar system.


The idea of a globe comprised of flammable gasses, so cold they are floating as a liquid covering, raises some fascinating thoughts. The glow from the methane indicates that it extends an estimated 430 miles into space.


What would happen, for instance, when we sent a rocket propelled ship, the Huygens probe that is attached to the Cassini orbiter, to the surface of Titan on Jan. 14? Will we inadvertently set fire to the methane? Is it possible that we will turn Titan into a second, albeit much smaller burning star circling our solar system?


True, without an abundant supply of oxygen to feed the flames, getting a ball the size of Titan burning would be difficult. But a space craft like Cassini, with plutonium generating power to its engines, might create a hot enough flame to do the job. I do not know if the Hyygens probe also contains plutonium as a power source. I would not be surprised if it did.


Thus we have an interesting idea . . . that human intervention might alter and perhaps bring havoc to other parts of our solar system in addition to our own planet.


It is difficult to say how hot a moon the size of Titan might get if it could be set ablaze, or if it would burn for any length of time. Titan is smaller than the Earth. And it is minute in comparison to the sun.


Titan also is extremely cold. One estimate is that it is about -270 degrees, which explains why the methane is in liquid form instead of a gas. With temperatures that low, the concept of fire on that globe in the sky might be pretty hard to achieve.


That we have scientists describing Titan’s surface as “flammable,” however, stirred my thoughts to the possibility of another human folly. Turning that lovely moon into a flaming ball in the night sky would be a hellish thing for us to do.


How would we explain that to our grandchildren? Perhaps we would never have the chance. At the rate we are going, we may have the human race driven into extinction before we need to think about such an improbable problem. In that case, it won’t even be on our minds.