Would You Climb Titan’s Highest Peak?
published during a waning crescent moon.
04/05/2016

 

Highest Peak

These three ridges are the Mithrim Montes.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI

Scientists studying Saturn’s moon Titan recently announced the discovery of that world’s tallest peak — a high point on a complex of ridges called the Mithrim Montes. In announcing the news, NASA gave a nod to “extraterrestrial mountaineers of the future.” At 10,948 feet, it isn’t even a third the height of Earth’s Mt. Everest, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a grand challenge for some future astronaut.

I spoke to Jani Radebaugh, a planetary geologist at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, who led the research that identified the peak. I also spoke to Mike Malaska, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California who studies Titan’s chemistry about what it might be like to successfully climb the peak.

Right off the bat, an aspiring astro-mountaineer like yourself would get a couple of unexpected gifts from Titan. The air pressure is similar to Earth’s, so you wouldn’t need a pressurized suit or any form of portable pressurized habitats for your climb — your mobility won’t be an issue. The second gift is its significantly reduced gravity. At about 14% of Earth gravity, you could load your climbing pack with impunity!

But just as Titan gives, it also takes. The surface of Titan is frigid and dark. It receives just about 1% the light Earth does so you would need a suit that could protect you from the −290 °F surface temperatures. Visibility will also be a problem, but not because of darkness. The issue, he said, is the contrast — there isn’t any. The surface and the hazy atmosphere are all pretty much the same color. You are going to want to grab a hold of some sort of contrast-enhancing goggles.

Strapped into your super-warm, super-mobile, non-pressurized suit with enhanced contrast goggles, you’d be ready to hit the trail. But before even descending to the surface of Titan, the very first decision you would have to make, Radebaugh said, is which side of the ridge you are going to climb. It’s a classic mountaineers dilemma — a shorter but more technical hike on the south side (about 20 miles, she estimated), or a longer but less steep hike on the north side (about 30 miles).

Let’s say you are up for the adventure of the south side. Steep pitches, you’d reason, aren’t as much of a big deal on Titan — you could probably just hop over some of the more imposing stretches. In fact, the atmosphere is so dense and thick, and the gravity so minuscule, that if you built yourself some wings, you could fly under your own power, Malaska said. No need to tie in to ropes when you can fly, right?

Highest Peak

Here’s a view from 5 km above Titan’s surface as the Huygens probe made its descent.
Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

So you begin your 20-miles 11,000-foot trek with some portable wings stuffed in your overflowing-but-not-at-all-cumbersome pack (no rockets, cheater). Though the ridges themselves are probably large blocks of water ice, you would still be walking on pretty foreign surface. More than likely, the surface of Titan is covered with dust, grains, cobbles, and boulders of hydrocarbon material like benzene, Malaska said. The surface of Titan is also famously covered with, and shaped by, rivers and lakes of liquid methane and ethane.

“You’d have sand, you’d have cobbles, you’d have clays. [You] might be walking through some swamps for a while at the base of the mountains, before you get to the rubble-y cobbles, talus slopes like you might see out at the edge of mountains here,” Radebaugh said, “You’d feel like you’re on Earth, but the materials are completely different.”

Rising through the swamps and sand dunes, the cobbly start of your climb, it wouldn’t take long for you to take note of your other-worldly surroundings. The Mithrim Montes are, lucky for you, located in the weirdest known part of Titan — a place named Xanadu. It’s a rugged area near Titan’s equator and it is a mess of chaotic and poorly understood ridges, rivers, valleys, and craters.

During your hike, you might experience a downpour of methane and ethane from clouds many miles above your head. You’d be lucky, too. Storms on Titan that precipitate all the way to the ground are rare, but they have been observed in Xanadu and other places, Malaska said. “We know that it rains from time to time, and it’s a pretty impressive downpour when it occurs.”

At some point during your hike, you’d probably have to turn in for a night’s rest. And why not take this theoretical storm as a good reason find shelter for that rest? As beautiful as it is, you might be a bit uneasy about a torrent of volatile hydrocarbons descending from the dark, hazy sky.

Even though you have spent a respectable number of hours hiking to get to your campsite, you have still only spent about fraction of the nearly 383 hours it takes a single day to pass on Titan. A day on Titan lasts as long as one full orbit around Saturn because the two are tidally locked. That means that one side of Titan is always facing toward Saturn and the other to Space. Xanadu, your home for the night, is on the side that faces space.

Your final push to the summit the next day would be quite exhilarating. Because the peak is on a complex of ridges, you’d have an epic view to both the south and the north. “First you’d see the other two ridges in the distance [and] you’d see all the peaks along the ridge you’re standing on,” Radebaugh said. “[It] really would be a spectacular view.”

“From the summit proper, you’d have a view of one of the most mysterious features on Titan”, Radebaugh said. You’d be looking down to a large basin that pushes right into the edge of the Mithrim Montes that appears to be filled with a super fine hydrocarbon dust. That’s pretty much all scientists know right now. How it formed or why it is in such an odd place next to a ridge are open questions. “Standing up there and trying to figure out what it is you’re looking at down below would also be really exciting and interesting I’d think,” Radebaugh imagined.

Before you take in your final view from the top, you might be inclined to plant a flag at the summit as a tribute to humanity’s insatiable spirit of exploration. Because we are a pretty clever species, we already know a thing or two about what that flag would be like up on top of the Mithrim Montes.

“If it were blowing, it would probably blow from west to east or maybe from southwest to northeast,” Malaska said. “We just know the direction that it should go based on looking at the sand grains and the dune patterns and streaks.”