Titan has “Hundreds of Times More” Liquid Hydrocarbons Than Earth

Article written: 13 Feb , 2008
Updated: 26 Dec , 2015

According to new Cassini data, Saturns largest moon, Titan, has “hundreds” times more liquid hydrocarbons than all the liquid fossil fuel deposits on Earth. This is impressive as Titan’s 5150 km diameter is only about 50% larger than Earth’s Moon and only a little larger than the planet Mercury. Titan’s hydrocarbons cycle into the atmosphere, fall as rain and collect in lakes creating massive lakes and dunes.

Titan is a planet-sized hydrocarbon factory. Instead of water, vast quantities of organic chemicals rain down on the moon’s surface, pooling in huge reservoirs of liquid methane and ethane. Solid carbon-based molecules are also present in the dune region around the equator, dwarfing Earth’s total coal supplies. Carl Sagan coined the term “tholins” to describe prebiotic chemicals, and the dunes of Titan are expected to be teeming with them. Tholins are essential for the beginning of carbon-based organisms, so these new observations by Cassini will stir massive amounts of excitement for planetary physicists and biologists alike.

The cold -179°C (-290°F) landscape of Titan is currently being mapped by the Cassini probe as it orbits the ringed gas giant, Saturn. Some 20% of the moons surface has been catalogued and so far several hundred hydrocarbon seas and lakes have been discovered. These lakes, individually, have enough methane/ethane energy to fuel the whole of the US for 300 years.

These new findings have been published in the January 29th issue of the Geophysical Research Letters by Ralph Lorenz from the Cassini radar team (Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, USA). Lorenz said on reviewing the Cassini data that, “we know that some lakes are more than 10 m or so deep because they appear literally pitch-black to the radar. If they were shallow we’d see the bottom, and we don’t.” He also steps into the life-beyond-Earth debate by pointing out: “We are carbon-based life, and understanding how far along the chain of complexity towards life that chemistry can go in an environment like Titan will be important in understanding the origins of life throughout the universe.”

The ESA Huygens probe separated from Cassini and dropped slowly through the Titan atmosphere in January 2005 analyzing the atmospheric composition and taking some breathtaking images of the surrounding landscape. To complement the huge amount of data assembled from Huygens decent, Cassini will flyby the moon again on February 22nd to take radar data of the Huygens landing site.

Source: Physorg.com

26 Responses

  1. LLDIAZ says

    you think bush is gonna invade titan?

  2. LLDIAZ says

    you think bush is gonna invade titan? maybe to build a new democracy there…

  3. Timber says

    OK you doom and gloom folks, now is the time to contribute, figure out how to get some really big tanks up there and lets pump a few of those lakes dry. Maybe you can get Halliburton interested.

  4. Earthbound says

    “figure out how to get some really big tanks up there and lets pump a few of those lakes dry.”

    Clarke’s novel “Imperial Earth” touched on this concept. In the book, massive collection vessels scooped through the atmosphere and collected materials that fueled the efforts of humans across the solar system.

  5. pro says

    And to burn all those hydrocarbons we need some additional oxygen too… Where to get that from???
    The next question will be: what to do with CO2? 🙂

  6. tacitus says

    I think we’ll start importing hydrocarbons from Titan once oil prices reach 100 bazillion dollars. Could happen any day now….

  7. Member
    Michael Booth says

    “and the dunes of Titan are expected to be teeming with them”

    “The Spice must Flow”

  8. Max Vondel says

    Leave Titan alone, we’ve raped out planet. It should be preserved as a laboratory, not some commercial money making scheme.

  9. Timber says

    Pro, we have the solution, plant more trees, Arborday.org

  10. danoil says

    I’ll drink your milkshake,Titan!

  11. NeoGuru says

    It’s ALIVE I tell ya!

  12. Peter K says

    Max, we could preserve the whole universe just the way it is. It won’t do anyone any good. There is a balance between making wise use of a resource and destroying a Planet’s equilibrium. If God hands you a furnace and you are cold, would you not throw in a stick?

  13. planet seeker says

    leave Titan alone for science. I think that it is one of our best chances of finding life in our solar system. Why would you destroy that? And Peter I would not throw in a stick if it was part of the last tree.

  14. Truey says

    Actually by the time we actually develop the technology to be able to travel that far and extract the minerals there, we will have already eliminated the need for oil as fuel. So I really hope washington and Haliburton etc. find out about this and start investing more money into the space programs…like for example a mission to europa.

  15. > leave Titan alone for science

    Though I think the intent is good here, let’s not forget that Science has gotten plenty wrong in the past and still doesn’t have a good handle on our own biology, so I don’t think the practice is in any better position to manage human presence on Titan.

    If we go there, it will be managed the way we manage our activities, which is through politics. Sometimes that means the resource will be irresponsibly exhausted, sometimes it means responsible use, sometimes it means preservation. Science doesn’t trump everything in the human world, and Titan is not a human place. I’m all for exploration, but the assumption that we own everything often gets us into trouble 🙂

  16. neo lib says

    “…but the assumption that we own everything often gets us into trouble.”

    I agree with Todd. Just look at Iraq.

  17. explorer says

    why do we need to get a lot of fuel form this planet? to consume it? for money perhaps? why do we need money and why do we have to go to another planet for fuel. we have plenty of fuel that won’t run out, like solar power. And if the sun is acting up causing global warming, solar power would be the ideal energy source to switch to. and its free.

  18. cassandra says


    But the sun will eventually turn into a red giant and burn us up. What will we do then?

  19. dencot1 says

    Why would you set up mining and process robot plants at Titan in the future ?
    Fuel — No
    Plastics — Yes

  20. Toby says

    LLdiaz :
    LOL ! Thats a good one ! Maby .. If their ‘s weapons of mass destruction there , He will !

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  22. James says

    Why isn’t anyone questioning the origin of oil here on earth? If it isn’t a fossil fuel on titan, then most likely it wasn’t one here either

  23. Buckaroo says

    “Tholins are essential for the beginning of carbon-based organisms,” what part of Carl Sagan’s “prebiotic” theory didn’t you get? It’s ORGANIC MATERIAL ON TITAN AND ON EARTH. Which begs the real question: at what point was or will there be more advanced multi-cellular biotic life on Titan? Wow! The mind boggles.

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