Astronomers: Venus, Saturn and the Moon, a Stargazers Delight

Attention all amateur astronomers and stargazers. In the early morning this week, watch the skies just before sunrise and catch a glimpse of the latest planetary line-up. The Planets Venus and Saturn will give us a celestial happening beyond compare.

The planet Saturn and the planet Venus will light up the night sky this coming week. Or should I say the early morning sky, if you can handle the cold weather in the Pacific Northwest at this time of the year. but in the mean time, enjoy these two planets as they are illuminated by the full moon on Monday and Tuesday, first below and then from above. Planetary Moons do so much for the appearance of their respective planets, that a primer on Saturn’s Moon Titan is in order.

NASA scientists now believe Saturn’s giant moon Titan very likely has a vast ocean just under its frozen skin. The Cassini spacecraft has detected large amounts of physical distortion on Titan during its 16-day orbit of Saturn. Titan gets squeezed and stretched –30 times greater than might be expected on a rocky satellite– depending on its orbit around Saturn. The distortion from the ringed planet’s tremendous gravitational pull has led researchers to the “almost inescapable conclusion,” that there is liquid water at depth on the giant moon.

An image from a NASA animation showing ‘tides’ on Titan raised by Saturn’s gravity, as detected by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. The fact that Titan gets squeezed and stretched depending on its orbit around Saturn suggests the presence of an ocean beneath its surface, a recent study has found. (NASA)

Having an internal body of water makes Titan a very attractive place for potential microbial life. Other moons on the shortlist include Jupiter’s Europa, where an underground ocean is thought to exist, and another Saturnine moon called Enceladus, where jets have been seen spewing from the surface.

Titan boasts methane-filled seas at the poles and a possible lake near its equator. It has long been speculated that Titan contains a hidden liquid layer, based on mathematical modeling and electric field measurements made when the Huygens spacecraft landed on Titan’s surface, back in 2005. Liquid water is a key ingredient in any possibility of life. Those of us who follow the search for extra terrestrial life are very excited by this find.

Unfortunately, there are a number of other factors which must be addressed before we can even begin to assume life may have a toehold somewhere beyond our amazingly unique little Earth. Based on the Cassini findings, Titan’s suspected ocean lies about 100 kilometers (62 miles) beneath the surface. That means absolutely zero light or heat from Sol. All of the heat necessary to keep the ocean fluid is generated by the gravidic flexing which itself the evidence the of liquid water. But water and heat alone are still not enough to presage life of any kind.

Lead researcher Luciano Iess with Sapienza University in Rome, Italy put it this way: “The presence of water does not imply life. But Titan has many interesting ingredients – hydrocarbons, a hydrological cycle and a thick atmosphere.”

Scientists have no idea if the iced-over ocean is in contact with any rock deeper in the moon, either. Rocks of all sorts are a necessary source of minerals and other components known to be needed for life. It’s also worth noting that for all the experimentation and intellectual man-hours which the brightest minds on Earth have put forth, we still have no concrete grasp of how life begins. All we have are theories which continually go unproven. No one has created life in a test-tube yet, without life already being present.

So, until we can land a vehicle on the surface of Titan capable of drilling through the 62 miles of ice, carefully gathering and processing samples of the ocean at various depths and locations and then communicating those results back to Earth for proper analysis, all we can really do is speculate.

Well, we may not find life on Saturn, but the light show that Saturn, Venus, Mercury and our own Moon will give us this week will be a thing to behold, and a wonder of the Heavens. Enjoy!

Article By Benjamin Gaul

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