Weird Form of Alien Life May Be Possible on Saturn’s Moon Titan

titan-surface
Artist’s impression of Titan’s surface and atmosphere (credit: Benjamin de Bivort, debivort.org / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Titan is a very strange moon.

Orbiting the ringed gas giant Saturn, Titan is the only moon in the solar system that sports a thick atmosphere. Although the moon is extremely cold, its atmosphere is very dynamic; exhibiting seasons, precipitation and even creating vast seas.

Although this may sound very much like Earth’s atmosphere — where water evaporates from the oceans, condenses as clouds and precipitates as rain, forming rivers that flow back into the oceans — Titan’s atmosphere is dominated by a methane cycle, not a water cycle.

This may sound like the antithesis of Earth’s life-giving chemistry, but astrobiologists have been gradually finding clues to Titan’s habitable potential and today (July 28) scientists have announced the confirmation of a key molecule that could be the proverbial backbone to a weird kind of “alternative” alien life on Titan — based not on liquid water, but on liquid methane.

“The presence of vinyl cyanide in an environment with liquid methane suggests the intriguing possibility of chemical processes that are analogous to those important for life on Earth,” said astrochemistry researcher Maureen Palmer, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Palmer is lead author of a study published in Science Advances describing the detection of vinyl cyanide (also known as acrylonitrile) at Titan using the awesome power of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile.

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B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF); NASA

Previous observations of Titan’s atmosphere by NASA’s Cassini mission and chemical modeling of the moon’s surface have hinted that it is the ideal environment for vinyl cyanide to form. But it was only when analysis of archived data collected by ALMA between February to May 2014 was carried out that its presence was confirmed. And there appears to be a lot of the stuff.

So what is vinyl cyanide and why is it so important?

The molecule (C2H3CN) has the ability to form membranes and, if found in liquid pools of hydrocarbons on Titan’s surface, it could form a kind of lipid-based cell membrane analog of living organisms on Earth. In other words, this molecule could stew in primordial pools of hydrocarbons and arrange itself in such a way to create a “protocell” that is “stable and flexible in liquid methane,” said Jonathan Lunine (Cornell University) who, in 2015, was a member of the team who modeled vinyl cyanide and found that it might form cell membranes.

“This is a step forward in understanding whether Titan’s methane seas might host an exotic form of life,” Lunine, who wasn’t a member part of the team that announced today’s results, said in a statement.

Life As We Don’t Know It

When studying Titan’s nitrogen-rich atmosphere, ALMA detected three unambiguous millimeter-wavelength signals produced by vinyl cyanide that originated from 200 kilometers above Titan’s surface. It is well known that the moon’s atmosphere is a vast chemical factory; the energy of the sun and particles from space convert simple organic molecules into more complex chemistry. These chemicals then cycle down to Titans rich hydrocarbon surface.

But speculating about life on Titan is a hard task. The moon’s atmosphere is often compared with that of early Earth’s, but there are some huge differences. Titan is crazy-cold, averaging around 95 Kelvin (that’s an incredible -178 degrees Celsius or -288 degrees Fahrenheit); at no time in history has Earth’s atmosphere been that cold. Also, it’s thought that early Earth had large quantities of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere, Titan does not. As for water? Frozen. Oxygen? Forget about it.

So this research underpins our quest to find the chemistry of life as we DON’T know it, using the building blocks that follow the pattern of life that we do know, but swapping out key components (like water) to see if an analog of life’s chemistry can under very alien conditions.

“Saturn’s moon, Enceladus is the place to search for life like us, life that depends on — and exists in — liquid water,” said Lunine. “Titan, on the other hand, is the place to go to seek the outer limits of life — can some exotic type of life begin and evolve in a truly alien environment, that of liquid methane?”

Perhaps it’s time for a return mission to Titan’s extreme surface.

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Tethys Plays Hide and Seek with Cassini

Which planet does Tethys orbit again?

I do admit, I’m terrible with names, but I never forget a face. In this case, the face I didn’t forget was a little moon orbiting Saturn (it’s the one that looks like the Death Star from Star Wars). However, after seeing this photo, I doubt I’ll ever forget Tethys’ name again.

In a photo snapped by the awesome Cassini Equinox mission back in November, the little moon with characteristic impact crater carved into its crust can be seen to be drifting behind Titan. Tethys only disappears for 18 minutes behind Titan’s thick atmosphere, but it was enough to ignite my interest in the icy world.

It’s strange how a simple photograph and perfect timing can ignite the imagination, as I doubt “just another moon shot” would have the same effect. No, this is a moon drifting in front of another moon as seen by a veteran spaceship orbiting the second largest planet in the solar system millions of miles away. Sometimes words are insufficient to describe the enormity of what we are doing in space.

So, sod the words and look at this, you won’t be disappointed:

And 18 minutes later:

Lovely.

Source and full-res images: NASA, Discovery News

“Astronaut needed for experimental flight to Titan…”

The Reliant Robin Space Shuttle from the BBC's Top Gear.
A better chance of making it to Saturn: The Reliant Robin Space Shuttle from the BBCs Top Gear.

An ad on Craigslist has just appeared: Astronaut Needed (Northern Alberta). Sign me up!

Oh, hold on…

Astronaut needed for experimental flight to Titan. I have been working on this project now for near 40 years and am afraid I’m no longer fit enough to go. My secret space craft is the result of my professional experience and imagination while serving the U.S. military in advanced aeronautics as a scientist. The craft harnesses a revolutionary propulsion system and its fuselage is fabricated with the most advanced material. While considerably safe, I am certain you will make it safely to Titan but there will not be enough fuel to get home. This is for someone unique that has always wanted to see the universe first-hand and has perhaps a terminal view on life here at home. Here’s your shot at romantic history.” —Mad Rocket Scientist from Canada (emphasis added by me).

I was almost convinced I had a stab at flying to the Saturnian moon. What put me off? The fact that there won’t be enough fuel to get me back to Earth? Or was it the fact that I’m not stark raving mad? Nope, it turns out I’m too tall. “[The applicant] must be no taller than 5’10 and relatively slim.” Curses.

Thank goodness the spaceship is “…is largely cpu controlled,” I was getting worried that this ad was sounding a little too reckless…

Wow.

Thanks to @absolutspacegrl for the heads up!