Strange New Worlds #4: Playing Hide-And-Seek At Titan

By Inge Heyer - October 30, 2012

While watching the latest Star Trek movie, introducing us to Kirk and company at a much earlier time in their lives, one scene in particular stood out for the astronomer in me. Nero had destroyed Vulcan, and was about to do the same to Earth, so Enterprise under the command of Cadet Kirk was rushing towards Earth to prevent a second genocide. Young Chekov realized that in order to sneak up on Nero’s ship, they had to remain invisible to the Narada for as long as possible. He found a convenient hiding spot, namely the one celestial body near Earth that had a thick atmosphere, but was neither too close nor too massive: Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

Figure 1: Enterprise emerges from Titan's upper atmosphere. 

Titan was discovered on 25 March, 1655, by Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch astronomer who was inspired by Italian astronomer Galileo’s use of the telescope and his discoveries of the four large moons of Jupiter earlier that same century. Huygens built an even better telescope and discovered Titan. Titan is the sixth moon outward from Saturn, and it is truly a world in its own. It is about1.5 times the size and 1.8 times the mass of Earth’s moon Luna, making it the second-largest moon in the Solar System, just barely behind Jupiter’s largest moon Ganymede. It is the only moon with an atmosphere, which makes it extremely interesting to astronomers as well as rather convenient for Cadet Chekov and his goal to hide Enterprise’s approach.

Figure 2: The seven largest moons in the Solar System. (NASA)


Figure 3: A size comparison between Luna, Titan, and Earth. (NASA)


Between 2004 and 2005, NASA’s combined spacecraft Cassini-Huygens explored the Saturn system, and as part of this mission, extensively photographed Titan as well as landed the Huygens spacecraft on Titan’s surface. Titan’s atmosphere is very thick, and to over 98% composed of nitrogen with a pressure at the surface of about 1.45 Earth atmospheres. We can’t see Titan’s surface even from orbit with our telescopes, as Titan’s atmosphere blocks most visible light. Furthermore, since Titan is smaller than Earth and therefore has less gravity, its atmosphere extends out much farther than Earth’s, which makes it somewhat easier for Chekov to fly the Enterprise into the atmosphere without having to fight gravity quite as much.

Titan’s atmosphere contains methane, a substance that exists here on Earth only as a gas, because Earth is much closer to the Sun than Titan and therefore a lot warmer. On Titan, it rains and snows methane, and the rivers and lakes the Hyugens spacecraft discovered are believed to contain liquid methane. That makes Titan the only body in the Solar System besides Earth that has liquid on the surface. Methane is an organic chemical compound, and therefore immediately leads scientists to the thought of possibilities of life. Quite a few speculations have been made about life either on the surface in and around the liquid methane, at temperatures of just under -300 F, or underground involving frozen or slushy water. Some experiments have been done already in laboratories to see if the same chemical and energy reactions that led to life here on Earth could be achieved with the chemicals and conditions present on Titan. Future missions will have to look closer into these possibilities.

While I don’t think Cadet Chekov had to worry about negative reactions from the locals during his daring atmospheric maneuver, there is one thing he was hopefully careful to avoid. It turns out that Titan has a permanent hurricane at its south pole. As long as he didn’t go anywhere near this hurricane, Enterprise should have emerged from the atmosphere intact.

 

Figure 4: Hurrican at Titan's south pole. (NASA)

 

As for the magnetic field Chekov mentioned, during its orbit around Saturn, Titan is over 90% of the time within the magnetosphere of Saturn, which shields it from the Solar Wind, much like Earth’s magnetic field does for us. But our magnetic field does not keep us from sensing stuff in orbit or further out, and neither would Saturn’s. And rings have actually nothing to do with planetary magnetic fields, which are generated by rotating metallic cores. The rings are made of ice, dust, and little rocks, which would not interact with a magnetic field. So while Chekov was wrong about the effects of the magnetic field, his idea of hiding in Titan’s atmosphere was a good one.

There is much more exciting information about Titan to be found online, such as details on mountain ranges, weather, seasons, and the possibility of cryovolcanoes on the surface.

If you like to know more about Titan, I recommend starting here:
http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/profile.cfm?Object=Sat_Titan

If you like to know more about NASA’s Cassini-Huygens mission, I recommend starting here:
http://www.nasa.gov/centers/jpl/missions/cassini.html

For anyone interested in the connection between Star Trek and science, I can recommend an event taking place in December of this year. A number of science and science fiction professionals, including Star Trek’s science advisor Andre Bormanis, astronaut Steve Hawley, and several astronomy professors including yours truly are participating in a cruise to the Mayan ruins to celebrate the idea that the world will in fact not end (if you haven’t heard about the whole 2012 issue and the connection to the Mayan calendar, please see http://outreach.jach.hawaii.edu/teachers/Doomsday2012.pdf). Among numerous regular convention-type activities we will have many lively discussions about the intersection of science fiction and science. If you want to know more, please visit http://end-of-the-world-cruise.com/blog/ (and check out the Raisa Explorers interest group for Star Trek/SF media fans).

Live Long and Prosper,

Inge Heyer
www.ingeheyer.com

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Inge Heyer is an avid Star Trek fan and frequent convention guest. After earning a BA in physics and astronomy, Heyer obtained a master's degree in astronomy at the University of Hawaii. As a senior data analyst at  the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, she worked on images received from the the Hubble Space Telescope's Wide-Field and Planetary Camera 2. Following this she led the outreach education efforts for the Joint Astronomy Centre in Hawaii. More recently, she has obtained her doctorate in Science Education from the University of Wyoming, and is now a visiting assistant professor in astronomy and physics at Loyola University Maryland.

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