Beyond Earth points out that people on Titan could get energy from these compounds if they use a separate combustion source that helps circumvent that fact that there’s no oxygen in the moon’s atmosphere. But Hendrix’s new research also discusses other ways of generating chemical energy, such as treating acetylene (an abundant compound) with hydrogen.
“In this paper, I wanted to dig into the chemical energy options a bit deeper and also look into alternative energy possibilities,” said Hendrix, a staff scientist at the non-profit Planetary Science Institute. “My co-author, Yuk Yung, and I looked at chemical, nuclear, geothermal, solar, hydropower, and wind power options at Titan. The paper is designed to be a high-level first look at some of these topics.”
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While Hendrix said it’s possible to generate such energy using technology that we have available today, she noted that there are ways that we could get even more out of Titan’s environment with the proper study. For example, more solar power would be generated if we learned about the capabilities of different photovoltaic cell materials — and most importantly, how they would behave on Titan.
Hydro power would require better mapping of Titan's abundant lake regions, including their topography and their flow rate. Even wind power would require some research into airborne wind turbines — but Hendrix said all of these options are promising.
“I imagine that, as here on Earth, a combination of energy sources will be useful on Titan,” she said. “In particular, solar energy (using large arrays) and wind power (using airborne wind turbines) may be particularly effective.”
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Delivered properly, the energy needs would be more than enough for a small outpost. Instead of just sending humans on a one-shot mission to look for life on the surface, for example, Hendrix envisions a future that could generate power for years. One scenario — solar arrays over 10 percent of Titan’s surface area — would generate power needs of a population of roughly 300 million, equivalent to that of the United States.
“This is just an initial estimate, of course, but what we’re talking about is something much larger than a short-term human science mission to Titan,” Hendrix said.
With NASA’s stated goal of sending humans to Mars by the 2030s, however, space agencies remain focused on Mars exploration. While the Cassini robotic mission at Saturn and its moons wraps up observations this September, NASA and the European Space Agency are planning even more missions to Mars in the coming years. Saturn doesn’t really figure into the plans, although NASA is thinking about eventual missions to Uranus, Neptune, and Jupiter's moon Europa.
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