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

The Power of One Infographic

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." ®

Eight steps to building an HP BladeSystem

More from The Register

next story
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 claimed lives of HIV/AIDS cure scientists
Researchers, advocates, health workers among those on shot-down plane
Forty-five years ago: FOOTPRINTS FOUND ON MOON
NASA won't be back any time soon, sadly
The Sun took a day off last week and made NO sunspots
Someone needs to get that lazy star cooking again before things get cold around here
Mwa-ha-ha-ha! Eccentric billionaire Musk gets his PRIVATE SPACEPORT
In the Lone Star State, perhaps appropriately enough
MARS NEEDS OCEANS to support life - and so do exoplanets
Just being in the Goldilocks zone doesn't mean there'll be anyone to eat the porridge
Diary note: Pluto's close-up is a year from … now!
New Horizons is less than a year from the dwarf planet
Boffins discuss AI space program at hush-hush IARPA confab
IBM, MIT, plenty of others invited to fill Uncle Sam's spy toolchest, but where's Google?
prev story

Whitepapers

Reducing security risks from open source software
Follow a few strategies and your organization can gain the full benefits of open source and the cloud without compromising the security of your applications.
Consolidation: The Foundation for IT Business Transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.
Application security programs and practises
Follow a few strategies and your organization can gain the full benefits of open source and the cloud without compromising the security of your applications.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
Consolidation: the foundation for IT and business transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.