Titan Studies Verify Uniqueness of Earth

One of the most amazing engineering accomplishments of mankind came to a conclusion on January 14, 2005 as telemetry was received from a spaceship named Huygens which had landed on the largest moon in the solar system--Titan, a moon of Saturn. It took seven years for the spaceship to travel the 2.2-billion-mile journey to Saturn on board a larger space ship called Cassini. Cassini arrived at Saturn in June 2004, but it was not until Christmas Day that the Titan probe separated from the Cassini spaceship. On January 14, the probe entered the upper air of Titan at 12,400 miles per hour and opened the first of three parachutes that eventually enabled the spaceship to make a 150-minute descent to land on the surface of Titan. As it went down to the surface it made measurements of all kinds and turned on a spot light so its landing at eleven miles per hour could be seen. It then sent pictures and data by radio from the surface of Titan to the Cassini spacecraft for 72 minutes. The Cassini spacecraft then relayed the data and pictures to Earth. We all seem to hear a lot about failures in the space program, but this particular expedition has had incredible success, and while it has not gotten a lot of press it has told us a great deal about conditions in other areas of the solar system.

In the past there have been those who have predicted that life--or at least the precursors of life--would be found on Titan. The atmosphere of Titan has been seen to be a reddish orange color and spectrographic analysis has shown that there is a huge amount of nitrogen and some methane (natural gas) in the atmosphere. The presence of methane was of special interest to scientists because methane with a carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms, is the building block of more complicated organic molecules. Some biochemists predicted that there would be massive numbers of complex organic molecules found in oceans of hydrocarbons on Titan, the building blocks of life and perhaps even some basic life forms. It had also been suggested that what Titan is now gives a picture of what the Earth was early in its history.

As the Huygens probe sent back pictures from Titan, scientists were amazed to see boulders, carved river channels, old shorelines, and clouds. With a temperature of minus 300 degrees fahrenheit it is pretty obvious that these cannot be water-carved channels. As the space ship landed it broke through a crusty surface and sank several inches into the ground. The chemical studies of the surface and atmosphere of Titan show that it is made up almost totally of frozen gaseous material--not rock. The clouds turned out to be methane, and the materials on the surface of this moon are all hydrocarbons. The term "hydrocarbon goulash" has been used to describe what the surface of this moon is about. The density of Titan tells us that what we see on the surface is not what is deep down under all of this organic ice. There certainly is rock deep down inside this moon, but it is very heavy dense rock such as is seen in volcanic areas on Earth.

It is becoming apparent that the other planets in our solar system have very little in common with Earth. No oxygen or oxygen compounds have been seen in the studies of Titan. There are no sedimentary rock layers. What we find is a spongy surface saturated with organic compounds. In Earth's early rocks there are massive amounts of carbonates. This means that oxygen was present in significant quantities in the early Earth, and acted to make a swamp of materials that could support living matter. Titan is rich in petroleum, but this is apparently due to its low temperature and its distance from the Sun, and has nothing to do with life processes. Neither could this kind of atmosphere sustain life. If there is water on Titan, it is the dominant material in the rocks, and has no role in life processes.

Jonathon Lunine who has been working on this project described what they have learned about Titan in these terms: "...This is a planetary scene like no other, vaguely disturbing and nightmarish to me and certainly not Mars or Venus." Our point is that all the discoveries that have been made about the solar system have shown how special and how unique the Earth is. It is wonderful to have humans who can build a machine that can tell us such wonderful things about such strange and exotic places. As we learn these things we see more and more truthfulness in the old biblical adage "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge" Psalm 19:1-2 (NIV). As man comes to learn more about what our neighbors in space are like, he sees how truthful this statement is.

--John N. Clayton

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