Friday, December 14, 2012

A Houseboat on Titan


Pop quiz.  What's the largest sea on Titan?

Why, Kraken Mare, of course.

Now the Cassini probe has discovered the largest river to date on the second-largest moon in the solar system  (Ganymede is largest; our own Moon is number five), and it flows into Kraken Mare.  The surface of Titan is so cold that water-ice is as hard as granite.  So, by the best analyses, the seas and rivers are made up of ethane and methane.

Titan, which you all know is the largest moon of Saturn, presents a particularly difficult problem in mapping because it has a murky atmosphere in which all kinds of interesting chemical reactions are going on, so none of its surface is visible from above.  All the mapping has to be done by radar.

The common reportage is comparing this new discovery to the River Nile, which is silly when you consider that the new river is somewhere between 200 and 250 miles long, while the Nile extend over four thousand miles.  But it's still a terrific discovery, especially when you're as old as I am.

When I was a kid, all the solar moons other than our own were mysterious and blurry spots on photographic plates.  Very little was known about any of them, other than that they were there.  Now, there are maps of many of them.

I'm particularly interested in news from Titan because ten years ago I wrote a story set there which went on to win a Hugo Award.  It was called "Slow Life" and was based on dozens and dozens of NASA technical papers which I downloaded from the Web and read and internalized until they told me a story.  The presence of ethane-methane lakes and seas was purely speculative at the time, and I took a chance on them existing because I could have a better story if they did.  So I really lucked out there.

Looking at that grainy radar photo above, though, I feel my imagination stirring.  Had it existed when I wrote "Slow Life," I would almost certainly have had a scene set on a raft on that river.  I would have drawn a large map and named every tributary, twist, and cove of it.  I would have sent my astronaut on a perilous journey to the north, into Kraken Mare, there to make some strange discovery.  I would have sent my mind to live there for a few months.  And I would have written a very different story than the one I did.

That story is out there to be written.  There's a flood of great new information still pouring in and being made available to all the world for free by NASA, and God bless them for that.  I'm not likely to return to Titan because then I'd be competing with myself.  But if you're a new or gonnabe writer, why not give the possibility some thought?  SF editors love hard SF because it's popular and because they get so little of it.

Feel free to write a better story than mine.  I won't mind.  The next Hugo could be yours.

You can read about the (still unnamed) river here .



HANNAH'S DAD said...

The water ice on Mercury - *that's* calling out for a story.

Michael Swanwick said...

Harder to do, though, because its use as a rocket propellant -- which is not at all new -- is so obvious it distracts from other possible ideas.

Maybe the story could be set long after a permanent colony has been established there, and the water is finally beginning to run out. Do they abandon heir planet, leaving only a small science station? Do they crash a new comet into a crater on one of the poles, knowing that if it's not done perfectly (and comet-wrangling is not a precise science), it could destroy everything they've built? Could there be a third way?

That might work.

Michael Swanwick said...

Or, going Old School, a scientist and an engineer are trapped on the research there when their lander explodes. They've got tons of equipment and the water ice for propulsion mass. Can they jury-rig something that will get them into orbit, where the mother ship can pick them up?

That one would depend on just how clever the solution was.

Michael Swanwick said...

Or maybe exotic life is found living in the ice -- microscopic and totally unrelated to any of the other three types of life (which are clearly if tenuously related to each other) found in the solar system. Can the literal destruction of habitat needed to found a colony be justified given that in the long run it means extinction of this form of life?

Actually, there are probably lots of possibilities for Mercury ice stories.

HANNAH'S DAD said...

Sheesh! And I was just thinking the locals could have ice in their drinks now...

HANNAH'S DAD said...

Actually option 3 - life in the water supply - sounds good.