Seven Hundred Leagues Beneath Titan’s Methane Seas

Seven Hundred Leagues Beneath Titan’s Methane Seas

What could be more exciting than flying a helicopter over the deserts of Mars? How about playing Captain Nemo on Saturn’s large, foggy moon Titan — plumbing the depths of a methane ocean, dodging hydrocarbon icebergs and exploring an ancient, frigid shoreline of organic goo a billion miles from the sun?

Those are the visions that danced through my head recently. The eyes of humanity are on Mars these days. A convoy of robots, after a half-year in space, has been dropping, one after another, into orbit or straight to the ground on the Red Planet, like incoming jets at J.F.K. Among the cargo is a helicopter that armchair astronauts look forward to flying over the Martian sands.

But my own attention was diverted to the farther reaches of the solar system by the news that Kraken Mare, an ocean of methane on Titan, had recently been gauged for depth and probably went at least 1,000 feet down. That as deep as nuclear submarines will admit to going. The news rekindled my dreams of what I think would be the most romantic of space missions: a voyage on, and ultimately even under, the oceans of Titan.

“The depth and composition of each of Titan’s seas had already been measured, except for Titan’s largest sea, Kraken Mare — which not only has a great name but also contains about 80 percent of the moon’s surface liquids,” said Valerio Poggiali, research associate at the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science. Dr. Poggiali is the lead author of a paper describing the new depth measurements in The Journal of the American Geophysical Union.

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