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Waves Spotted On Titan 73

Posted by Soulskill
from the lakeside-property-for-sale dept.
minty3 writes "Planetary scientists believe they have observed waves rippling on one of Titan's seas. The findings, presented on March 17 at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, describes how the Cassini spacecraft captured images of sunlight glinting off the Punga Mare (abstract), suggesting they are not reflective sunlight but waves." The Planetary Society recently posted a nice breakdown of the basics about Titan's lakes: "To flow with liquid, those river valleys must have been filled with methane that came from higher elevations; it had to rain methane on Titan. Rainfall runs off, and then what? It must pool somewhere. What we learned from the Cassini orbiter at Saturn is that there are lakes on Titan. ... Rainfall, river runoff, lakes, evaporation into clouds, rainfall again. Cassini has seen clouds make storms on Titan. We have seen the whole cycle -- it's just like Earth's water cycle, but with a completely different substance [methane], and much, much colder."
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Waves Spotted On Titan

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  • by rmdingler (1955220) on Tuesday March 18, 2014 @06:28PM (#46520513)
    There are probably some tardigrade-like creatures living here we would have difficulty recognizing as life.

    Seriously, Neil Degrasse Tyson is not unwatchable.

    • by mythosaz (572040) on Tuesday March 18, 2014 @06:37PM (#46520579)

      Two quick points.

      (1) Yeah, the first thing I thought to myself was, "Yeah, I watched Cosmos this week too."

      (2) I was initially surprised by the fact there wasn't more outrage over Cosmos tipping over conservative apple carts, but it then occured to me that everyone who would be offended by Cosmos was probably self-selecting to not watch anyway. Probably a lot of preaching to the choir going on on Sunday morning and night now. :(

      • It's about the fence sitters, and the kids.

        • by Hentai (165906)

          Do you think that people who disapprove of science are going to let their kids watch a science show?

      • by Deadstick (535032)

        I was initially surprised by the fact there wasn't more outrage over Cosmos tipping over conservative apple carts

        Drop in on the IMDB.

        • by mythosaz (572040)

          I'll take a look, but as long as it's at the level of IMDB squabbles, it's still well, well, below the level of "catastrophic shitstorm" that I suspected after last week.

          • by Deadstick (535032)

            Yeah, I hear you. Interesting story about censorship in Oklahoma: http://arstechnica.com/science... [arstechnica.com]

            • Sounds like it really was an accident. And outrage on IMDB? pfft... 90% of the ridiculous posts I read I just assume are made by the time cube guy. Seriously, crazy self obsessed people have a lot of time on their hands. Their influence on the course of debate on the Internet is far too strong.

    • by delt0r (999393) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @04:46AM (#46522787)
      I know this is always a popular theme. Life may not be as we know it. However proper analisis makes it less likely than water based carbon life for a number of reasons. Methane as the base solvent however works at lot better that the reaching silicon based life suggestions.

      Quite simply you need some form of universal solvent to provide mobility to produced compounds. Water is just so hard to beat for this. Methane is not polar so at the very least "life" would not be able to use hydrophilic/Hydrophobic properties of base building blocks to control structure. Note this is not just used to fold proteins, but also the formation of bi lipid membranes. In fact it is postulated that the first stages of life was the spontaneous formation of such membranes.

      Then there is the temperature problem. Liquid methane is cold. Really cold. A lot of reaction are just not going to happen at all at these temperatures. So having a viable metabolism would be challenging.

      But carbon based life is certainly a lot more plausible in methane than these silly silicone based life forms everyone likes to suggest. For a start silicon does not form lots of stable compounds with itself and other elements. Unlike carbon. It does not oxides into easily removed/dissolved compounds. There is no effective solvent for most longer chain silicones ..etc.

      And the real kicker is that a planet that has silicon will also have carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen etc around as well. Temperatures where complex compounds/chains are stable but interesting reactions also happen tend to be close to where water is a liquid. Also don't forget just how much of the current elements are essential to life. Its often more than people think. http://umbbd.ethz.ch/periodic/ [umbbd.ethz.ch]

      Bottom line is that water is practically magical in its solvent like properties and carbon is a freaking miracle. Its hard to see where they can be beat or anything else can come even remotely close.

      But even carbon based life in water has vast scope to be very different to us. Even the hard sci fi gets this totally wrong (alien life will not be food that is for sure. Biocompatibility == 0). It may not be amino acids that are the blocks of whatever passes as proteins. Even if it is it will not be the same ones and almost definitely not 20 like we have. Instead of DNA is could be something quite different (but there will be some information store, we know that). There may not be any RNA like intermediary. In fact if alien life did look a lot like us, ie DNA (even if it was different bases) amino acids with some overlap of our own, it would be quite a strong case of common origin. There is simply no real evidence that there should be convergent evolution to the particular set of DNA/RNA/Amino acids we have here.

      And it could be far simpler than even the simplest bacteria (which are bloody complicated). For example you could have something that just has plasmid like loops of "DNA" floating around with no structure, blobs of cell just buds off all the time. And by chance alone some of these buds has enough of the different plasmids to rinse and repeat.

      But non carbon based, non water solvent life is definitely not nearly as likely as many people think. Too much sci fi, and not enough numbers. We have a very good understanding of chemistry and even an alternative metabolism hasn't even been suggested outside arm waving and doctor who level science.
      • by T.E.D. (34228)

        I know this is always a popular theme. Life may not be as we know it. However proper analisis makes it less likely than water based carbon life for a number of reasons.

        Its popular for a reason. How do we know what exactly is required for life? Every time we've thought of a "requirement" before, we've looked somewhere on earth that doesn't meet those requirements and found life. Our knowledge of what is needed is limited, and frankly horribly blinded by our own experience. We know the mechanisms that we can see that life on earth uses, but that doesn't mean that's the only mechanism (or even the best possible mechanism). Humans can collectively be quite creative, but we ar

        • by delt0r (999393)
          You can't change the laws of physics or chemistry. We know these laws really well. Its not experience with life around us that has taught us these rules. But the Universe around us.
      • by Sockatume (732728)

        Life not based around carbon and water would have to be be so profoundly unlike our own that it might not be recognisable as life.

        • by delt0r (999393)
          Anything that self replicates has such a profound influence on the local surroundings that it would be impossible to miss even if your not looking for it.
    • by flyneye (84093)

      Not if we add a little oxygen to the methane and lightning. Nothing lives in an exploding fart.

  • by hessian (467078) on Tuesday March 18, 2014 @06:30PM (#46520531) Homepage Journal

    A mission to Titan is essential now. Not only is it a moral imperative to explore these seas, but there's probably seafront property we can sell to dot-com billionaires.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      _Another_ mission to Titan.

      Cassini launched Huygens. Huygens landed and took photos as it did. Amazing that something so freaking incredible as this seems to be missed by most science pundits. But then, Huygens was the European bit of the mission. So perhaps it's like coverage of sports the US doesn't play.

      Coverage of Huygens was really good in the UK.

      Huygens, incidentally, was designed to be able to cope with landing in the ocean.

    • Not only is it a moral imperative to explore these seas, but there's probably seafront property we can sell to dot-com billionaires.

      Maybe, but I think skinny dipping is right out.

  • by hedgemage (934558) on Tuesday March 18, 2014 @07:26PM (#46520875)
    CAN YOU SURF THESE WAVES?
    • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

      The surface gravity is only 0.14g. It's not dissimilar to the surface of the moon. Surfing in that could be pretty interesting, although the space suit you would be wearing might make it tricky.

  • by SoftwareArtist (1472499) on Tuesday March 18, 2014 @07:40PM (#46520937)

    I wonder what sort of chemistry any organisms living in those lakes would have. The whole concept of hydrophobicity would be reversed. Polar groups would be "methanephilic" and nonpolar ones would be "methanephobic". They could still have cell walls made from lipids, but they'd be flipped around with the polar part on the inside.

    • by delt0r (999393)
      I posted above about this. Didn't think of reversed hydrophobicity. Assumed none. But still there are big issues with temperature and well the fact that methane is just not a great solvent.

      And well the claim that "it would be hard to recognize as life" is pure BS. Anything self replicating becomes so freaking dominate to the local conditions and chemistry it would be practically impossible to miss even if your not looking for it.
      • I don't think temperature is a problem. You just adjust your energy barriers to be appropriate to the temperature. So proteins would be much less stable than earth ones, but then they'd be much colder, so their stability would come out the same. Just like extremophiles have much more stable proteins than other organisms, so they don't fall apart at high temperature.

        A bigger problem is DNA and RNA. Those would instantly precipitate out in methane. So you'd need a different molecule to serve that functio

  • Unfortunately... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by asmkm22 (1902712) on Tuesday March 18, 2014 @08:18PM (#46521137)

    We've pretty much hit the point where future missions to explore places like Titan are decades down the road, since people don't seem to think NASA should be properly funded.

    • Words can't describe how much I hate the people who are fine with spending our grandchildren's money on wars rather than science, but how much funding is "proper?" And what's a reasonable time to be able to start a mission given a reasonable funding? A decade doesn't seem that long. Wiki tells me it took Cassini seven years just to get from here to there [wikipedia.org].
      • by asmkm22 (1902712)

        Travel time, sure. But the spacecraft originates from plans laid in the early 80's, and it wasn't actually approved until the late 80's. So basically it took 15 to 20 years to get from "here to there."

    • In an ideal society NASA would get the funds for all space exploration missions but it looks like once the Cassini probe runs out of fuel, estimated to happen in 2017, NASA will not be funded for the purpose of further exploring the giant planets.
    • by T.E.D. (34228)

      It isn't a matter of "proper funding". The current ideology is that large corporations are just plain better at everything that identically-sized groups that happen to be part of the government. Thus increasing funding to a non-military government agency for any reason is heresy.

      There probably will eventually be future missions to Titan, but they will be for harvesting all that methane and natural gas so it can be hauled back to Earth and burned up in our atmosphere.

  • "Punga mare", in Romanian, means "big bag". At first, I thought it was named by a Romanian dude, but I found out that "Punga" comes from Maori.

  • Titan sounds like a tough place to occupy on the ground, but could its methane supply ever be developed to serve as a fuel supply for a space station in Titan's orbit?

    I read about it in Wikipedia, so I'm sure this sounds moronic, but it sounds like its really rich in methane and has a weak gravitational pull. Could you create a reusable vehicle that would harvest methane, using it for its own source of fuel, but being able to deliver a surplus to be used to keep a station fueled or even ultimately provide

    • by Zaldarr (2469168)
      The problem is not the fuel, but rather the oxygen to burn said fuel. Sure, hydrocarbons are in excess, but you still need an oxidising agent, and oxygen is pretty damned valuable since it's both part of life support and fuel.
  • by cyn1c77 (928549) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @12:05AM (#46522077)

    Just to be clear for those who didn't read the article, this entire study is based on four brighter than expected pixels.

    Four pixels in the images are brighter than one might expect from reflecting sunlight, Barnes reported at the conference. He concluded that they must represent something particularly rough on the surface — a wave or set of waves.

    • Just to be clear for those who didn't read the article, this entire study is based on four brighter than expected pixels.

      Four pixels in the images are brighter than one might expect from reflecting sunlight, Barnes reported at the conference. He concluded that they must represent something particularly rough on the surface — a wave or set of waves.

      Correct. And the scientist in question said it may indicate the presence of waves, giving him some wiggle room if a future mission goes there and finds that basically everything is frozen solid.

  • Sounds like a men's college dorm to me....

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