Our Place in Space: Xanadu

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Our Place in Space: A to Z!  For this year’s A to Z Challenge, I’ll be taking you on a partly imaginative and highly optimistic tour of humanity’s future in outer space.  If you don’t know what the A to Z Challenge is, click here to learn more.  In today’s post, X is for…

XANADU

`Titan is the largest moon of Saturn.  It’s a very cold place.  It’s so cold on Titan that water is basically a kind of rock, and certain chemicals that we typically think of as gases (i.e.: methane and ethane) flow freely as liquids.  As a result, the surface of Titan looks surprisingly similar to some regions on Earth: a rocky landscape eroded by rain and rivers.  Except the “rock” is frozen water, and the rain and rivers are a mix of liquified methane and ethane.  One of the most curiously familiar “rock” formations on Titan lies near the equator.  It’s called Xanadu.

Xanadu is an Australia-sized region of craggy hills and mountains.  Due to Titan’s thick, hazy atmosphere, it’s impossible to see Xanadu (or any other surface feature on Titan) except in certain specific wavelengths, such as certain wavelengths of infrared.  When Xanadu is visible, it appears as a bright splotch on Titan’s surface, surrounded by much darker desert terrain.

It’s unclear how Xanadu came to be.  One hypothesis I read argues that Xanadu could be associated with some sort of giant impact event.  Perhaps a large asteroid or comet smashed into Titan, disrupting the icy crust, which then refroze as this jagged and craggy terrain.  Another hypothesis suggests that Xanadu was created by some sort of tectonic activity—a fascinating possibility.  At this point, Earth is the only world confirmed to have plate tectonics.

In this Our Place in Space series, I’ve tried to emphasize all the cool and exciting things humans could do in the distant future.  I have also mentioned, from time to time, my belief that humans in the distant future will learn to be good stewards of the Earth.  Space exploration can help us do that.  Titan is so curiously familiar, yet also so weirdly different from Earth.  Trying to understand why Titan is so different-yet-similar can teach us much about our own world—which, in turn, will help us figure out how to take better care of our planet.

But there’s a catch.  Just as we have a responsibility to take better care of Earth, we also have a moral responsibility to not mess up Titan.  Remember Titan’s thick, hazy atmosphere?  There are some weird chemicals forming in that atmosphere.  Organic chemicals.  Could those organic chemicals be associated, in one way or another, with biological activity?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  No one can say at this point.

In the next few years, NASA will be sending a robotic helicopter to explore Titan’s Shangri-La region, one of the dark-colored regions directly adjacent to Xanadu.  If we’re lucky, maybe that robo-helicopter will venture into Xanadu at some point.  I have confidence that NASA will thoroughly sterilize all of their equipment before sending it to Titan to ensure that we do not contaminate Titan with our Earth germs.

There will be many more missions to Titan in the future.  Just as Mars is crawling with Mars rovers today, Titan will be covered in Titan rovers, Titan helicopters, and Titan submarines in the future.  The place has too much in common with Earth, and we simply cannot leave it unexplored.  But humans in the distant future will not only be good stewards of the Earth; they’ll be good stewards of the Solar System.  And so, whether we’re exploring Xanadu or Kraken Mare or Shangri-La, or any other region on Titan that has a super cool name, strict safety precautions will always be a must.

Want to Learn More?

I had a really hard time finding information about Xanadu for this post.  I’m guessing that’s because very little information is available at this time.  More exploring needs to be done! What I did find came from these three scientific papers:

Our Place in Space: The Wilderness

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Our Place in Space: A to Z!  For this year’s A to Z Challenge, I’ll be taking you on a partly imaginative and highly optimistic tour of humanity’s future in outer space.  If you don’t know what the A to Z Challenge is, click here to learn more.  In today’s post, W is for…

THE WILDERNESS

All month long, I’ve been telling you about how, in the distant future, human civilization will spread out far and wide across the Solar System.  At the same time, I have rather casually been declaring various places in the Solar System should be off limits to humans.  I feel perfectly justified in doing that after reading a certain research paper titled “How much of the Solar System should we leave as wilderness?”

I’m not going to summarize that paper in its entirety.  If you want to learn more, you can check out the links in the “Want to Learn More?” section below.  The main point I want to talk about, based on what that “wilderness” paper said, is that the Solar System is absolutely ginormous.  You may think you understand how big the Solar System is.  However big you think it is, it’s probably bigger than that.

As a result, we can declare insanely large swaths of territory and resources “protected wilderness” without inconveniencing ourselves.  The paper advocates for establishing a one-eighth principle, meaning that our future space economy should be restricted to using only one-eighth of the resources in our Solar System.  The remaining seven-eighths would be off limits.  To quote from the paper:

We are required, as a point of social ethics, to accept reasonable constraints upon our self-interest in order to meet basic standards of justice between one another and (arguably) between ourselves and future generations.  This is a precondition of having any sort of stable and lasting human society.  However, we will take it that a livable ethic for society at large cannot ask for too much.  More precisely, a reasonable social ethic cannot ask for anything so demanding that it is impossible, inconsistent with what we know about human psychology, or otherwise so demanding that it belongs only in the domain of private sacrificial commitment of a sort associated with political and religious ideals.  The one-eighth restriction may seem to fall foul of this constraint.

Yes, the one-eighth principle sounds very demanding and restrictive at first glance.  But, as the authors of that paper go on to explain, the Solar System is really big.  Even if we make some highly optimistic assumptions about how fast the future space economy might grow, it would still take centuries to use up a full eighth of the Solar System.

This wilderness paper is now one of my all time favorite scientific research papers.  It does make some important warnings for the future, though, and if you’re a fan of the kind of futurism I’ve been touting in this Our Place in Space series, I’d encourage you to check out the links below.

In the meantime, I declare that the rings of Saturn should be off limits to mining operations.  Let’s preserve the natural beauty of those rings.  Parts of Mars should be off limits as well—if we find alien life on Mars, perhaps the whole planet should be off limits.  Same for many of the icy moons of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune—especially Titan, Enceladus, and Ganymede—and most extra especially, Europa.  Seriously, nobody mess with Europa!

Want to Learn More?

Click here to read “How much of the Solar System should we leave as wilderness?”

Or click here to read an article from Live Science summarizing the paper’s main points in less technical language.