Saturn's moon Titan may have even more essential ingredients for life

In addition, researchers used data from the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chili to find traces of vinyl cyanide in Titan's atmosphere.

David Sims | Aug 09, 2017

A team of international astronomers have found further evidence that Saturn's largest moon, Titan hosts many of the key ingredients needed to create life.

In the past, NASA's Cassini spacecraft found traces of carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen -- three elements needed by all living organisms on Earth -- on the distant moon. Not only that, but the celestial body also has two different types of liquids on its surface: an underground water ocean and lakes of liquid methane.

Now, researchers believe they have found two more potentially important ingredients on the rocky surface. The first is a compound that forms a membrane similar to the one that surrounds cells, and the second is a long carbon chain molecule that may help drive the formation of larger compounds.

While this new discovery is exciting, Titan is vastly different than Earth. The moon -- which sits 1 billion miles from the sun -- is extremely cold. In addition, the smog-filled atmosphere rains methane, there is barely any oxygen, and the lakes are teeming with highly flammable hydrocarbons. As a result, the life created by the compounds would not appear like life as we know it.

"It would be a lot different from the chemistry we're used to on Earth," said Maureen Palmer, a planetary scientists at the NASA Goddard Space Center, according toThe Washington Post."That's why when we're thinking about astrobiology on Titan it's sometimes called 'weird life.' It's a fascinating target for trying to explore the boundaries for what life would be possible.

Even so, many believe Titan is one of the best places to search for new signs of life, and the recent discoveries add credence to that belief.

Cassini first discovered one of the new compounds, known as a carbon chain anion, late last month. The negatively charged molecule appears to be a catalyst for complicated chemical reactions and could trigger reactions that create bigger organic compounds, including the building blocks for life.

In addition, researchers used data from the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chili to find traces of vinyl cyanide in Titan's atmosphere. That compound is incredibly important because it can form a spherical envelope that is similar to the membranes around our cells.

Though the team is not sure, they believe both of the above compounds suggest that the creation of life is possible on Titan. Even so, while the moon has many of the necessary pieces, it is hard to tell if they will all come together in the right way. Building life is not a quick or easy process, and further monitoring is going to be difficult because the Cassini spacecraft is almost out of fuel.

While many agencies are moving on towards other projects, the team believes that more time should be spent looking at Titan and figuring out what type of life might exist on the icy body.

"People ask me all the time if I think there's life on Titan, and you will get a different answer from me depending on how much alcohol I've had," said Sarah Hrst, a professor of planetary science at Johns Hopkins University, according to The Baltimore Post. "But we are pretty darn sure that everything in these broad, big-picture categories that's required for life exists on Titan. At some point it just comes down to, well, shouldn't we go check?"

These recent findings were covered in a pair of studies published inAstrophysical Journal Letters and Science Advances.


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