Do Not Go Swimming on Titan

August 24, 2016

I’ve made a friend on Titan: a giant, multi-tentacled monster that swims around in Titan’s lakes of liquid methane. Today, my new friend invited me to go swimming with him. While that does sound like fun, there are a few problems with that idea:

  • I can’t exactly change into my swimming trunks. There’s no oxygen in Titan’s atmosphere, so I need my bulky spacesuit. But even if that weren’t a problem….
  • Liquid methane is a cryogenic fluid. It’s not quite as cold as liquid nitrogen, but still… If I stick my toe in the methane, my toe will probably flash freeze and shatter. But even if that weren’t a problem….
  • I would sink straight to the bottom of the lake. Liquid methane is significantly less dense than water and significantly less dense than the human body. I wouldn’t be able to float, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to swim.

However, I didn’t want to disappoint my new friend, and I did come prepared for a possible excursion over a methane lake. So I hurried back to my spaceship and grabbed my boat.

Ag24 Lake Monster of Titan

Life on Titan: Infrared Eyes

August 22, 2016

I’ve been exploring the surface of Titan for several weeks now. During my time here, I have not discovered alien life, but alien life sure has discovered me. Fortunately, the Titanian lake monster I met on Friday is friendly, and he was super excited about meeting someone “from the stars.”

“Wait,” I said, “you know about the stars?”

“Oh yes,” the lake monster said. “I look up at them, twinkling in the night, and also the great orb with the rings around it.”

This really left me flummoxed. I can’t see Saturn at all from the surface of Titan (and I was pretty upset about it too). I certainly can’t see the stars. I can’t even see the Sun through all the tholin haze layered up in Titan’s atmosphere.

However, the tholin haze does allow certain wavelengths of light to pass through, mostly in the infrared part of the spectrum. The haze is almost completely transparent at a wavelength of 2000 nanometers (nm), which is how the infrared camera on the Cassini spacecraft has been able to photograph Titan’s surface.

The human eye can only detect light between roughly 400 and 700 nm. That’s because humans evolved on a planet where the 400 to 700 nm range is dominant, while life on Titan evolved in an environment where infrared light shines the most clearly.

So my new lake monster friend sees in infrared, possibly right around the 2000 nm range, and when he looks up into the sky he can see the Sun and stars and even Saturn, while all I see is gloomy orange haze.

Sciency Words: In Situ

August 19, 2016

Sciency Words PHYS copy

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:


Today I’m continuing to blog from the surface of Titan, Saturn’s largest and most mysterious moon. No more reading about Titan in books and journals or on the Internet. Right now, I can do my Titan research “in situ,” as the real scientists would say.

Ag19 Life on Titan

“In situ” basically means “on location.” It comes from the Latin words for “on” and “location.” Alternative translations include “in the place” or “situated in,” but I think “on location” works best for our purposes.

Just about any time you find the phrase “in situ” in a scientific text, you can mentally substitute the words “on location” without changing the meaning of the sentence one bit.

  • The Mars rovers conduct in situ experiments to identify Martian geological features.
  • In the future, colonists cannot depend on supply missions from Earth for all their needs. They’ll have to make use of in situ resources.
  • Triton (Neptune’s largest moon) probably didn’t form in situ, but was captured by Neptune’s gravity after forming elsewhere.

Regarding in situ planetary science, contrast it with the observational science done using telescopes or laboratory experiments that attempt to recreate conditions on other worlds. Or you could contrast in situ research against something like a sample return mission, where material is brought back to Earth rather than analyzed on location (I mean, in situ).

Meanwhile on Titan

While in situ research has its advantages, it’s still only as good as the human doing the research. If life exists on Titan, it’s bound to be very different from life on Earth, with biochemistry totally unlike our own.

I can’t just look into a methane lake and see if any alien microbes are swimming around. I have to know what to look for before I look. I have to know which experiments to do before I do them. Which is why I still have to read books and journals and Internet articles about Titan. Otherwise, I might miss something important.

P.S.: Ah! It’s got my leg! Send help!

Proxima Centauri Has a Planet!

August 16, 2016

Ohmigod, ohmigod, ohmigod!

Okay, calm down, James. Breathe. Breathe.

Okay. Let’s take a look at Alpha Centuari, a binary star system located within a mere 5 light-years from Earth. In the bottom corner of the image, you can see a red dwarf star called Proxima Centauri, which is believed to be a companion to the Alpha Centauri pair. And in orbit of Promixa, you can see… you can see… ohmigod!

Ag16 Alpha Centauri

Apparently the European Southern Observatory (ESO) has discovered a planet orbiting Proxima. Not only that, it’s an Earth-like planet. And furthermore, it’s within Proxima’s habitable zone. This according to an unnamed source in a German newspaper.

The ESO is a highly respected, extremely trustworthy astronomical institution. As for unnamed sources… okay, let’s put our skeptical hats back on.

Let’s also remember that Earth-like planets are not necessarily all that Earth-like. For the last few weeks, I’ve been blogging from the surface of Titan, which is often described as one of the most Earth-like worlds in the Solar System. And let me tell you, it is miserable here. I guess there could be life on Titan, but not life as we humans understand it.

Mars is also sometimes described as Earth-like, and believe it or not, so is Venus.

Ag16 Earth-like Worlds

Supposedly the ESO will release its official findings at the end of August. Until then, we’ll just have to sit back, wait patiently, and stay skeptical.

P.S.: Ohmigod! Proxima Centauri might have… might… I can’t even! OH MY GOD!!!


Earth-like Planet Around Proxima Centauri Discovered from Universe Today.


Sciency Words: Futurism

August 12, 2016

Sciency Words MATH

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:


Sometimes I think I know what a word means, only to discover that it has a second definition. Such is the case with futurism.

Previously, I only know about futurism the art style, which dates back to the early 20th Century. It was an art movement obsessed with the latest cutting edge technology. You know, cutting edge technology like aeroplanes and automobiles. That version of futurism is now, ironically, just another part of art history.

Whenever I’ve seen or heard the word futurism, I’ve mistakenly assumed that it harkens back to that early, avant-garde art movement. And when you think you already know what a word means, you don’t feel much need to grab a dictionary and investigate further.

But it turns out that there’s a different kind of futurism (sometimes called futurology) which straddles the line between art and science. I only found out about this other futurism from a recent episode of Writing Excuses (the best podcast for writers… ever!)

The Writing Excuses crew interviewed Trina Marie Phillips, a professional futurist. Her job is to look at the current trends in science and technology and try to extrapolate what might happen over the next 10, 20, or 30-plus years. Fortune 500 companies pay her to help them prepare for the technological advancements that are coming in the near future.

My favorite part of this: professional futurists like Phillips use storytelling—as in science fiction stories—to illustrate to their clients how new technology might affect their customers, or their business models, or the global economy in general. Truly, this is where science meets fiction.

P.S.: I get the sense that futurism is a deep, deep rabbit hole. I have not researched this subject as thoroughly as I probably should have for today’s post, but I was so excited about this that I had to share.

Can You See Saturn from Titan?

August 10, 2016

As I continue my exploration of Titan, there’s something I was really hoping to see.

Ag10 Saturn in the Sky

Like Earth’s moon, Titan is tidally locked. That means as Titan orbits Saturn, the same side of the moon is always oriented toward the planet.

So in theory, all I have to do is make my way to the Saturn-facing hemisphere, look up in the sky, and behold the majesty of the Ringed Planet.

I’m sorry to report that today science has crushed my dreams. Titan is shrouded in a haze of aerosol particles called tholins. The tholin haze is not as dense as you might assume (which is why I thought I might be able to see Saturn).

But this diffuse haze extends from the surface all the way up to an altitude of approximately 300 km. For the sake of comparison, typical Earth clouds form at altitudes between 3 and 12 km, and the unofficial boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space is about 100 km up. So you could say that Titan’s haze is 200 km taller than Earth’s entire atmosphere (and Titan still has a few more atmospheric layers above the haze too).

Dense or not, there’s more than enough tholin haze overhead to block my view of Saturn. In fact, it’s enough that I can’t tell which way the sun is.

Ag10 Saturn Not in the Sky

Of course, Titan does experience seasonal changes which can affect the tholin haze. Maybe if I came back at a different time of year (Titan’s year equals almost 30 Earth years), I might be able to see something. But I doubt it.

First Steps on Titan

August 8, 2016

Your first steps on a new world should be an auspicious occasion. With that in mind, I have just landed on Titan. I’ve opened the hatch of my spaceship. I’m descending the ladder. I’m taking my first step….

Ag08 First Steps on Titan

I should have expected this. Titan may be too cold for liquid water, but it’s the right temperature and pressure for liquid methane.

There’s enough liquid methane (and also liquid ethane) to form lakes and rivers. It rains liquid hydrocarbons, and the ground is saturated with this stuff. Add tholins to the mix, and you’ve really got yourself in a sticky situation.

When the Huygens probe landed on Titan in 2005, it found surface conditions that the Huygens team compared to crème brûlèe: a layer of soft, gooey material with a thin, hardened crust on top.

No one can say for sure if the Huygens landing site is truly representative of the entire surface of Titan, but still… I should have expected to get my space boots dirty.

And here’s another thing I should have expected. You see, Titan has an atmosphere (approximately 95% nitrogen, less than 5% methane). In fact, Titan’s atmosphere is slightly denser than the atmosphere on Earth, so sound waves travel pretty well. Which means that as I trudge across the Titanian landscape, I can actually hear my space boots squishing in the mud.

P.S.: One more thing I should’ve thought about sooner. I’m going to have to figure out a way to clean my spacesuit before getting back into my spaceship. All this hydrocarbon gunk is going to become a real fire hazard once I’m back in an oxygen-rich environment.


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