NASA engineer suggests settling Saturn's moon Titan

While most space visionaries are planning for settlements on the moon and eventually Mars, a NASA engineer named Janelle Wellons has an even more ambitious idea. According to Futurism, Wellons, a mission operation engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, suggested recently that humans should establish a settlement on Titan, the second largest moon in the solar system, orbiting Saturn.

Titan has several advantages as a new home for humans. It has about a 14 percent the gravity of Earths. It has a thick atmosphere, mostly comprised of nitrogen and methane. Its surface consists of rock and water ice, with rivers, lakes, and even seas of liquid methane. People would not need pressure suits to walk on Titan’s surface as they would on the moon and Mars. They would be protected from radiation by the thick atmosphere. The water could be mined, used for drinking, bathing, and agriculture and cracked into oxygen and hydrogen.

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Of course, Titan has several disadvantages as a new home for humanity. The moon of Saturn is incredibly cold, an average of -292 degrees Fahrenheit. The low gravity might affect human reproduction, similar for people living long-term on the moon and Mars. Titan is also 746 million miles from Earth. The Cassini space probe took seven years to reach the Saturn system, a voyage that would be problematic for humans. Seven years of exposure to radiation and microgravity would likely kill human colonists long before they completed the voyage to Titan.

Why should humanity establish a settlement on Titan? What would such a community produce that would justify the great expense of founding it? The moon has mineral resources close at hand. Mars could be terraformed, eventually, to become a rough copy of Earth, as it was billions of years ago.’

The product that a Titan settlement could produce to make it worthwhile is something that most people don’t think of as a commodity with monetary value. That product would be scientific knowledge. The acquisition of knowledge may justify the establishment of a human community so far away devoted to that purpose.

Titan is a weird enough world, the only one besides Earth with a hydraulic cycle, to make it of extreme interests to scientists. The moon is shrouded in methane clouds that, just as clouds do on Earth, occasionally cause rain. However, the rain is comprised primarily of methane, which feeds Titan’s waterways. The liquid methane evaporates from the lakes, rivers and seas and forms clouds. The cycle repeats.

Could life of a sort exist on Titan? According to Astrobiology Magazine, the answer, to paraphrase that line from "Star Trek," is, possibly “Yes, but not as we know it.” Signs of life could be found at crater impact sites, where organic molecules and liquid water might be found. Cryovolcanoes, which eject liquid water rather than magma, are another possible home for Titanian life but are now considered unlikely. The search for life on Titan and, if found, its study, would occupy the time of a human community that far away.

When they are not busily doing science, the future Titan settlers could swim in the methane waters of Titan, given appropriate protective gear. Because of the low gravity and thick atmosphere, people could strap on wings and fly with muscle power, just like birds. Nowhere else in the solar system could people do those things, for work or for fun.

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The idea of settlements on Titan is, for now, more of an intellectual exercise than a real prospect. Earth will have its hands full dealing with the moon. Mars, and asteroids where more immediate fortune and glory exist. However, perhaps a century hence, when the inner solar system has become too tame for the adventurous and curious, the moons of the outer planets could become more attractive. Propulsion and power technology based on fusion energy could place worlds like Titan within reach by human explorers.

The world of 2119 will be, in many ways, as unimaginable as our times would be for people living a hundred years ago. The incredible will have become commonplace. People living a hundred years hence will likely wonder how people living at the beginning of the 21st century would ever think that settlements on Titan would be considered impossible, something that should fill all of us with optimism.

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”