Feeds

LIFE on Titan: If there's one thing aliens HATE, it's a SALTY BALL

Saturnian ice moon may have 'Dead Sea'-like ocean

Business security measures using SSL

Astro-boffins have come up with new and compelling evidence that the ocean buried inside Saturn’s largest moon Titan is probably as salty as Earth’s Dead Sea, sadly making it an unlikely location for alien life.

Researchers found that Titan's ice shell, which overlies a very salty ocean, varies in thickness around the moon, suggesting the crust is in the process of becoming rigid.

The scientists used the data collected during repeated flybys of Titan by NASA’s Cassini satellite to study the gravity and topography of the massive moon. The data gave the boffins a model structure for Titan that they could use to find out more about its outer ice shell.

Scientists reckon that this shell is rigid and in the process of freezing solid, something the current study agrees with. But the researchers figured out that a relatively high density was needed in the subsurface ocean to explain Titan’s gravity. That density is probably provided by extremely salty water, mixed with dissolved salts that contain sulphur, sodium and potassium.

"This is an extremely salty ocean by Earth standards," said the paper's lead author, Giuseppe Mitri of the University of Nantes in France. "Knowing this may change the way we view this ocean as a possible abode for present-day life, but conditions might have been very different there in the past."

The clue is in the comparison to the Dead Sea – so not really a hospitable location for life to be flourishing. The saltiness isn’t the only thing getting in the way of extraterrestrial microbes though. Cassini data also shows that the ocean is slowly crystallising and turning to ice.

The topography indicates that the thickness of Titan’s ice crust varies from place to place, which would be best explained if the shell was stiff and slowly freezing. This process would also mess with the habitability of the moon, as it would limit the ability of materials to exchange between the surface and the ocean.

Boffins expect to keep getting new info out of Cassini’s data for years to come. The next item on the checklist is to search for clues on how Titan replenishes the methane in its atmosphere.

The moon has around five per cent methane in its atmosphere, but researchers don’t know where it comes from. Molecules of the gas are short-lived because they get broken up by sunlight, so its constant presence in the air means the stuff must be leaking from somewhere.

Titan’s methane doesn’t seem to be coming from convection or plate tectonics under its ice shell, so some other process, likely geological, must be causing the localised, intermittent resupply. Even the reams of data from Cassini may not be enough to crack the mystery, however.

"Our work suggests looking for signs of methane outgassing will be difficult with Cassini, and may require a future mission that can find localised methane sources," said Jonathan Lunine, a scientist on the Cassini mission at Cornell University and one of the paper's co-authors. "As on Mars, this is a challenging task." ®

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk

More from The Register

next story
SCREW YOU, Russia! NASA lobs $6.8bn at Boeing AND SpaceX to run space station taxis
Musk charging nearly half as much as Boeing for crew trips
PORTAL TO ELSEWHERE scried in small galaxy far, far away
Supermassive black hole dominates titchy star formation
Boffins say they've got Lithium batteries the wrong way around
Surprises at the nano-scale mean our ideas about how they charge could be all wrong
Edge Research Lab to tackle chilly LOHAN's final test flight
Our US allies to probe potential Vulture 2 servo freeze
Europe prepares to INVADE comet: Rosetta landing site chosen
No word yet on whether backup site is labelled 'K'
Cracked it - Vulture 2 power podule fires servos for 4 HOURS
Pixhawk avionics juice issue sorted, onwards to Spaceport America
City hidden beneath England's Stonehenge had HUMAN ABATTOIR. And a pub
Boozed-up ancients drank beer before tearing corpses apart
prev story

Whitepapers

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk
A single remote control platform for user support is be key to providing an efficient helpdesk. Retain full control over the way in which screen and keystroke data is transmitted.
WIN a very cool portable ZX Spectrum
Win a one-off portable Spectrum built by legendary hardware hacker Ben Heck
Saudi Petroleum chooses Tegile storage solution
A storage solution that addresses company growth and performance for business-critical applications of caseware archive and search along with other key operational systems.
Protecting users from Firesheep and other Sidejacking attacks with SSL
Discussing the vulnerabilities inherent in Wi-Fi networks, and how using TLS/SSL for your entire site will assure security.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.