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Thursday, December 15, 2016

Reading List: On the Shores of Titan's Farthest Sea

Carroll, Michael. On the Shores of Titan's Farthest Sea. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International, 2015. ISBN 978-3-319-17758-8.
By the mid-23rd century, humans have become a spacefaring species. Human settlements extend from the Earth to the moons of Jupiter, Mars has been terraformed into a world with seas where people can live on the surface and breathe the air. The industries of Earth and Mars are supplied by resources mined in the asteroid belt. High-performance drive technologies, using fuels produced in space, allow this archipelago of human communities to participate in a system-wide economy, constrained only by the realities of orbital mechanics. For bulk shipments of cargo, it doesn't matter much how long they're in transit, as long as regular deliveries are maintained.

But whenever shipments of great value traverse a largely empty void, they represent an opportunity to those who would seize them by force. As in the days of wooden ships returning treasure from the New World to the Old on the home planet, space cargo en route from the new worlds to the old is vulnerable to pirates, and an arms race is underway between shippers and buccaneers of the black void, with the TriPlanet Bureau of Investigation (TBI) finding itself largely a spectator and confined to tracking down the activities of criminals within the far-flung human communities.

As humanity expands outward, the frontier is Titan, Saturn's largest moon, and the only moon in the solar system to have a substantial atmosphere. Titan around 2260 is much like present-day Antarctica: home to a variety of research stations operated by scientific agencies of various powers in the inner system. Titan is much more interesting than Antarctica, however. Apart from the Earth, it is the only solar system body to have natural liquids on its surface, with a complex cycle of evaporation, rain, erosion, rivers, lakes, and seas. The largest sea, Kraken Mare, located near the north pole, is larger than Earth's Caspian Sea. Titan's atmosphere is half again as dense as that of Earth, and with only 14% of Earth's gravity, it is possible for people to fly under their own muscle power.

It's cold: really cold. Titan receives around one hundredth the sunlight as the Earth, and the mean temperature is around −180 °C. There is plenty of water on Titan, but at these temperatures water is a rock as hard as granite, and it is found in the form of mountains and boulders on the surface. But what about the lakes? They're filled with a mixture of methane and ethane, hydrocarbons which can exist in either gaseous or liquid form in the temperature range and pressure on Titan. Driven by ultraviolet light from the Sun, these hydrocarbons react with nitrogen and hydrogen in the atmosphere to produce organic compounds that envelop the moon in a dense layer of smog and rain out, forming dunes on the surface. (Here “organic” is used in the chemist's sense of denoting compounds containing carbon and does not imply they are of biological origin.)

Mayda Research Station, located on the shore of Kraken Mare, hosts researchers in a variety of fields. In addition to people studying the atmosphere, rivers, organic compounds on the surface, and other specialties, the station is home to a drilling project intended to bore through the ice crust and explore the liquid water ocean believed to lie below. Mayda is an isolated station, with all of the interpersonal dynamics one expects to find in such environments along with the usual desire of researchers to get on with their own work. When a hydrologist turns up dead of hypothermia—frozen to death—in his bed in the station, his colleagues are baffled and unsettled. Accidents happen, but this is something which simply doesn't make any sense. Nobody can think of either a motive for foul play nor a suspect. Abigail Marco, an atmospheric scientist from Mars and friend of the victim, decides to investigate further, and contacts a friend on Mars who has worked with the TBI.

The death of the scientist is a mystery, but it is only the first in a series of enigmas which perplex the station's inhabitants who see, hear, and experience things which they, as scientists, cannot explain. Meanwhile, other baffling events threaten the survival of the crew and force Abigail to confront part of her past she had hoped she'd left on Mars.

This is not a “locked station mystery” although it starts out as one. There is interplanetary action and intrigue, and a central puzzle underlying everything that occurs. Although the story is fictional, the environment in which it is set is based upon our best present day understanding of Titan, a world about which little was known before the arrival of the Cassini spacecraft at Saturn in 2004 and the landing of its Huygens probe on Titan the following year. A twenty page appendix describes the science behind the story, including the environment at Titan, asteroid mining, and terraforming Mars. The author's nonfiction Living Among Giants (March 2015) provides details of the worlds of the outer solar system and the wonders awaiting explorers and settlers there.

Posted at December 15, 2016 01:15