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Saturn’s moon Titan may have the makings of early life

Published Oct 28th, 2020 11:17PM EDT
life on titan
Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

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  • Saturn’s bizarre moon Titan has carbon-based compounds in its atmosphere that may be a precursor to life. 
  • The surface of Titan is covered in lakes of hydrocarbons which are toxic to life as we know it, but there may be an ocean of liquid water deep beneath the surface.
  • Future missions could probe that ocean in search of life.

Of all the planets and moons in our solar system, Saturn’s moon Titan is definitely one of the strangest. It’s a vast world of ice covered in lakes of liquid. It’s not water, of course, as Titan is far too distant from the Sun for water to exist in its liquid form. Instead, titan is covered in chilled hydrocarbons that are, as far as life on Earth is concerned, incredibly toxic.

Now, in a new piece of research published in the Astronomical Journal, scientists have discovered something incredibly “weird” in Titan’s atmosphere. It’s a carbon-based molecule that can’t exist in nature on Earth and has only been observed on our planet in laboratory settings. On Titan, however, it appears to exist naturally, and that could mean exciting things in the search for otherworldly life.

We know what it takes for life to exist on Earth. Energy, in the form of sunlight or heat, and water are the big prerequisites. But life on other worlds that are completely unlike our own? How are we to know? The discovery of the molecules of cyclopropenylidene, or C3H2, is exciting because it could form the basis for lifeforms on Titan that we have never seen. It could also be an early precursor to food that could sustain life on the planet.

“Though scientists have found C3H2 in pockets throughout the galaxy, finding it in an atmosphere was a surprise,” NASA says. “That’s because cyclopropenylidene can react easily with other molecules it comes into contact with and form different species. Astronomers have so far found C3H2 only in clouds of gas and dust that float between star systems — in other words, regions too cold and diffuse to facilitate many chemical reactions.”

Okay, so that’s pretty cool. But what are the odds that the molecules floating around in Titan’s atmosphere are actually linked to life in any form? Well, it’s very difficult to say. Saturn itself has 62 moons, and scientists have observed quite a few of them. Titan is the largest and has what could be considered the most interesting chemical makeup, and certainly the most feature-rich surface, but life? That’s a whole other ball game.

What’s particularly promising about Titan is that it might be hiding a liquid ocean beneath its icy surface. If that ocean is filled with liquid water, it could actually be habitable, as crazy as that all sounds considering its hostile and toxic surface.

“We’re trying to figure out if Titan is habitable,” Rosaly Lopes of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a statement. “So we want to know what compounds from the atmosphere get to the surface, and then, whether that material can get through the ice crust to the ocean below, because we think the ocean is where the habitable conditions are.”

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