‘Far out’ prospects explored

An ‘Otherwordly’ Hunt for Discovery

Jeffrey S. Kargel
Jeffrey S. Kargel

It’s not like anyone forced him to name his luncheon talk “Unconventional Far-Out Petroleum and Gas: Hydrocarbons from Mars to Titan and Beyond,” but Jeffrey S. Kargel now seems stuck with it.

Or, perhaps he now has exactly what he wants. It all depends on one’s perception.

“It is simply a play on words,” he says, laughing, and you get the sense he knew the question was coming.

But there’s a serious side to his answer. Kargel, who is an adjunct professor and senior research scientist in the Department of Hydrology and Water Resources at the University of Arizona, says the point of the title that he’ll explore in Denver has to do with perceptions –and getting people to think in another dimension.

For him, that’s a necessity.

Kargel is looking for hydrocarbons not only in new places (others do that), but looking for them in places where nobody has ever been, like Mars.

And he’s not just tilting at interplanetary windmills. His sights are on “objects within this solar system where we know that hydrocarbons exist in various amounts.”

The search, he says, is extensive and promising.

“Not only Mars,” he says, “but Saturn’s moon, Titan, and other objects known to contain hydrocarbons” are part of his talk, his study and his universe.

For example, it is known that on Titan, the amounts of methane are enormous – and as for Mars, “the total amounts are unknown, but we see methane coming out of the interior.”

Soaring With Apollo

Kargel, who has a doctorate in planetary sciences, is a founding member of the Working Group in Glacier and Permafrost Hazards in Mountain Areas and has done extensive work on global change both on earth and other planets, believes we are being too myopic in thinking Earth is the only bastion of biogenic petroleum and gas.

His interest for things otherworldly, if you will, goes back to his childhood.

“My passion for planetary science started as a child,” explaining that his grandmother’s interest in meteorites and in the budding area of space exploration was ‘infectious.’

It was during the Apollo lunar programs – specifically the 1968 Christmas Eve sermon by the Apollo 8 astronauts – that he says hooked him for good.

“I then watched all the astronaut launches and moon walks and other events throughout the Apollo program,” he said, and that experience, along with watching the early Mariner 9 images of Mars while delivering newspapers, sealed the deal.

He wanted to be an astronaut; instead, though, he trained in geology and planetary sciences. And now he has the best of both worlds – definitely, no pun intended.

For Kargel, there’s something literally cosmic about it all, something exciting.

“I am poised at the forefront of geological and scientific exploration of our solar system,” he said.

The Final Frontier

To put it simply, Kargel says he wants to be able to draw from knowledge of the Earth to develop insights that will help understand, develop and ultimately explore the solar system.

But big questions have big costs and loud critics, so Kargel knows that looking for hydrocarbons on distant planets is not a decision that geologists can or will make themselves.

“It is a decision that the president and the American people, the taxpayers, will have to make.”

When they might want or need to is anyone’s guess, but it will happen, he says, for it is widely believed that the Earth is the Solar System’s “poor citizen” in petroleum and gas deposits.

Kargel puts it this way:

“I mean that some other objects – especially Saturn’s moon, but many others as well ­–are endowed with far more carbon than Earth has, even orders of magnitude more on grams of carbon/gram of planet basis. Titan literally has lakes and seas of liquefied natural gas. Carbonaceous asteroids are thoroughly impregnated with petroleum-like and asphalt-like hydrocarbons.”

And what, if any, are the ethical considerations of all this, of extracting such hydrocarbons from other planets?

“If a planet is thought to harbor life, or may harbor life, like Mars, that sets in one camp,” he said. “If there is almost no possibility of life, it’s a different matter.”

But that is all in the future in, literally, a distant land (or series of lands). For now, though, he wants you to know, “I love my career. It is simply amazing to be able to ponder big questions about other worlds.”

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EMD Luncheon Speaker

Jeffrey Kargel will be the speaker at this year’s Energy Minerals Division luncheon, set Wednesday, June 10, during the AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition in Denver. 

 Kargel, adjunct professor and senior research scientist in the Department of Hydrology and Water Resources at the University of Arizona, will discuss what we can learn about the Solar System from hydrocarbons. 

Emphasis: International Conference