To stay safe and work effectively, a colony in distant space is going to need a power source. Part of the reason that Titan is such an attractive candidate for colonization is the availability of carbon materials that can be used for energy. Titan’s reserves of fuels such as methane (the main ingredient in natural gas), seems to be vastly larger than the Earth’s. If there is going to be a colony on Titan, they are going to need energy to create a hospitable environment (the temperature on Titan is about -200 degrees; they’re going to need a lot of heat), lighting (Titan is less than 1% as bright as the Earth gets during the day), for transportation, as well as for many other needs. This post will explore some typical power sources on Earth and why it’s so important that any planet have it’s own fuel source. Fossil Fuels
Amongst the most important fuels used on Earth are fossil fuels. Oil is used mainly for transportation, although in many places, it is used for transportation as well. Coal is mainly used by burning it to create electricity. Natural gas is used mainly for electricity, but is often used for transportation as well.
The problem is that fossil fuels come from, well, fossils. Living beings over millions of years decay and decompose, eventually forming these fuels. Let us say our intrepid settlers wanted to move to a world where they were not sure whether there were fossil fuels. Could they bring it along from Earth?
Let us assume that the average individual on Titan uses as much electricity as a person in the United States. While the US does does a lot of manufacturing (and would need extra power for this), the US gets efficiency gains by clustering residents in cities. The average US citizen consumes one Megawatt-hour of electricity per year. This does not even count natural gas burned directly for heat, or oil consumed in cars or trucks. Just the electricity needs correspond to:
About 1000 pounds of coal per person per year
About about one million cubic feet of natural gas per person per year. If you chill this amount of natural gas into a liquid, it would weigh about 40,000 pounds.
About 2 barrels of oil per person per year. This weighs about 600 pounds.
The largest payload ever put into orbit was Skylab, which weighed about 150,000 pounds. Even assuming we could get one million pounds of oil to Titan, which is a very big if, that could power a settlement of 100 people for about 15 years.
Thankfully, Titan is incredibly rich in energy sources and those would likely power a settlement and be used for as many applications as possible. Energy can be used to split the hydrogen and oxygen in water - likely present under the surface in Titan- and create breathable oxygen. Solar Power
The Sun is only 1% as bright on Titan as it is on Earth. And this doesn’t even take the haze on Titan into account- which makes Titan much fainter. So, while the average US citizen can be powered by 6 typical solar panels (of 200 Watts each), our friends out on Titan will need at least 600 each. A solar panel currently weighs somewhere between 20 and 50 pounds, that means that a settlement of 100 would need aabout 60,000 panels, weighing over 1,000,000 pounds. This is beyond the outer limits of what a rocket can currently put into space, but within an order of magnitude. In any event, because of the poor sunlight in the outer solar system, this is likely to be a poor choice.
In a future post, I will discuss the possibilities of powering Titan with wind or nuclear power.