There’s oil on that thar moon

Saturn’s biggest satellite, Titan is an oil baron’s dream, space scientists have revealed. The orange world – which is half as big again as our own Moon – has hundreds of times more fuel slopping about than the entire known oil and natural gas reserves on Earth.

Cassini image of seas on TitanSo-called hydrocarbons in the form of methane and ethane are literally raining from the sky in the form of a persistant drizzle.

Vast quantities of the stuff is sitting around in hundreds of lakes that cover Titan’s surface. But any oil magnate hoping to get at it would face a return journey of several billion miles.

The new findings were discovered by Nasa’s Cassini probe that is in orbit around the giant ringed planet Saturn, studying it and its vast family of natural satellites.

Pictures sent back show that Titan’s surface has features just like the rivers, lakes and coastlines of Earth – except that they were carved by its liquid hydrocarbons instead of water. Mountain ranges are topped with the methane equivalent of snow that fell from the moon’s own clouds.

Cassini scientist Ralph Lorenz, of the Johns Hopkins University, Maryland, said: “Titan is just covered in carbon-bearing material – it’s a giant factory of organic chemicals. This vast carbon inventory is an important window into the geology and climate history of Titan.”

Cassini has mapped about 20 per cent of Titan’s surface with radar. Several hundred lakes and seas have been observed. Several dozen each are thought to contain more hydrocarbon liquid than Earth’s oil and gas reserves.

What is more, dark dunes that run along the equator contain a volume of organic material that is several hundred times larger than Earth’s coal reserves.

Planetary scientists are excited by conditions on Titan because they seem to be very similar to those on an early Earth and so the moon could be home to primitive life.
UK planetary scientist John Zarnecki, of the Open University, has previously told Skymania News: “We believe the chemistry is there for life to form. It just needs heat and warmth to kick-start the process. In four billion years time, when the sun swells into a red giant, it could be paradise on Titan.”

Professor Zarnecki was in charge of the surface science package on Huygens, a European probe which made a spectacular landing on Titan in January, 2005, after being carried there by Cassini.

He now believes it may have landed in a dried-up methane lake bed. He said: “We think where we landed was damp just below the surface and so may have been full of liquid a few years ago.”

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Photo: Nasa/JPL.