Space Case

"Here we find this planet a billion miles from the sun that turns out to be the most Earth-like place we've ever explored," says David Grinspoon, principal scientist for the Department of Space Studies in the Boulder-based Southwest Research Institute. "The first impression is that this could be the coastline of California. Finding familiar land forms in such an exotic place, where it's minus-300 degrees Fahrenheit, there's something mind-blowing about that."

Grinspoon will elaborate on that claim on Tuesday, March 1, at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, where he'll present "Imaging Titan: The Ongoing Discovery of a Strange New World." The planetary scientist and astrobiologist will show photos of Saturn's moon, Titan, taken by the Huygens probe, which touched down on the big rock in the pre-dawn hours of January 14. The images of Titan's pools and lakes carved by flowing methane are sure to fascinate anyone with even a remote interest in our celestial neighbors.

"Titan is really exciting. I've been interested in it for a long time," Grinspoon says. "I find the images very eerie. Like an alternate-reality Earth. I grew up on science fiction, and there's a very sci-fi thing about Titan. It's very key to astrobiology, a new scientific study of life elsewhere. For one, it's loaded with organic molecules. There's an orange smoggy haze all over Titan, like L.A. smog, but a lot worse. But what's enticing is that it's made of all organic molecules, which is what we are made out of. So there's a possibility of learning something about the chemistry of life."

Grinspoon is no stranger to the origins of life, having published Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life in 2003. Unlike other dull space tomes, Grinspoon's writings are more akin to those of Douglas Adams -- only they're based in science. The updated paperback version came out last November, and Grinspoon will be signing books at the event while giving his humor-laced commentary on one of his life's fascinations.

After all, as he writes in the Lonely Planets, "I think our galaxy is full of species. The wise ones are out there waiting for us to join them."

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Amy Haimerl

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