Move Over, Mars — Saturn's Moon Titan Could Be The Best Spot For A Human Space Colony

Between Stephen Hawking's increasingly dire warnings of our planet's imminent doom and Elon Musk's fleshed-out plan to colonize the Red Planet, everyone sure is in a hurry to get outta Dodge these days. But where to next? Our best bet might be Saturn's moon Titan.

Photograph of the Saturn moon Titan in False Color, taken by the Cassini space probe with ultraviolet and infrared camera on 26 Oct. 2004.

Location, Location, Location

News broke in 2017 that the toxicity of Mars' surface would throw a wrench in the plan to move there, and the lacking atmosphere on our moon poses a challenge. Ugh, now what? While the conversation around space colonies usually centers around Mars and the moon, a July 2017 study published in the Journal of Astrobiology asserts that Saturn's moon Titan is another viable option. It's nothing we haven't thought of before, but this paper breathes new life into the theory.

"Saturn's moon Titan is the optimal location in the solar system for an off-Earth human settlement," researchers Amanda Hendrix from the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona and Yuk Yung from Caltech write in the paper. (Hendrix also penned this blog post on the idea in Scientific American along with author Charles Wohlforth in 2016.) "It has Earth-like qualities and a thick atmosphere that provides shielding from damaging radiation unlike any other solid surface location in the solar system." Ralph Lorenz, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, told New Scientist it's not a bad thought: "I think long-term, after Mars, Titan's probably the next most important place that people will have an extended presence."

This artist's concept envisions what hydrocarbon ice forming on a liquid hydrocarbon sea of Saturn's moon Titan might look like.

No One Moon Should Have All That Power

Titan looks so good for human living for two reasons: atmosphere and energy. The shield from radiation thing is an obvious positive. More unexpectedly, Titan has a enough energy resources to support a U.S. population-sized human colony, according to the paper. The moon could allow multiple energy-harnessing options:

  1. Hydropower. The waves in Titan's lakes are a puny 1 centimeter high, but getting that liquid to flow downhill could generate substantial energy.
  2. Nuclear. We already use plutonium-238 on deep space probes for power, so we can bring that to Titan too. Titan has plenty of methane, as well as bodies of water made of hydrocarbons.
  3. Wind. To capture the intense winds on Titan, we'd have to look up — way up. Surface wind speeds are low, but at an altitude of 25 miles (40 km), they rise to 65 feet (20m) per second. Tether some balloons with power-generating windmills and we're in serious business.
  4. Solar. This is a weird one, seeing as Titan is ten time farther from the sun than Earth. The paper's researchers estimate that supporting 300 million people would require a solar farm covering 10 percent of Titan. Generating that kind of power on Earth would take less than 10 percent of the surface of Kansas, reports New Scientist.

Don't pack your bags just yet. For a host of other reasons (including, you know, how we actually get there), Titan isn't ready for human settlers. Though harnessing energy in the ways listed above is not impossible, that doesn't mean it'd be easy. Before we cover other worlds in solar panels, we need perfect it at home.

Soaring Over Titan: Extraterrestrial Land of Lakes

Key Facts In This Video

  1. Titan's hydrocarbon seas are named after mythical creatures. 00:16

  2. Nearly all of the liquid on Titan is located in the moon's northern hemisphere. 00:43

  3. The largest of Titan's lakes are about 50 km across. 00:54

Written by Joanie Faletto July 28, 2017

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