At first glance, Saturn’s moon Titan doesn’t seem like the kind of place that could host alien life. The average temperature of this distant orange ball is a frigid -290 degrees Fahrenheit.
And while Titan is the only other place in the solar system where we know there are flowing liquids on the surface, its lakes, rivers, and seas are filled with methane and ethane (too toxic for any Earthly lifeforms to survive in). Any water on the planet would be frozen solid.
But what if there were a different form of life? What if there were one that didn’t need water to survive — something we’ve never seen here on Earth?
A different form 0f life
According to a new study by scientists at Cornell University, there’s a chance that life actually could exist on this distant moon.
That’s because when sunlight hits Titan’s toxic yellow atmosphere, it produces hydrogen cyanide (HCN) — a molecule that researchers believe was vital in pre-life, or prebiotic reactions that led to life on our own planet.
HCN reacts to form large molecules called polymers, including polyimine. And polyimine is able to absorb a wide spectrum of light — “so wide that it’s enough to capture light penetrating Titan’s dense and hazy atmosphere,” making it a possible catalyst for life, reports Science Alert.
The Cornell team looked at data collected by NASA’s Cassini-Huygens mission. They were able to predict various compounds that could be made from HCN, and were able to calculate some of these compounds’ properties, reports Digital Trends.
In the end, the calculations suggested that the prebiotic reactions were possible and the resulting chemical structures were capable of functions like light absorption.
“If life could exist there, it would need to function very differently from ‘life as we know it,’ and offer clues to the limitations of life in the universe,” Martin Rahm lead author of the study, told Digital Trends.
A hunting ground for alien life
This new research gives scientists even more reasons to take a closer look at Titan in their hunt for extraterrestrial life.
“Scientists think that there is liquid water under the frozen surface of Titan, but locked away in a massive underground ocean — and there’s a lot of speculation that these kinds of underground oceans located throughout the Solar System could hypothetically give rise to life,” ScienceAlert reports.
Although this new paper does not actually predict life on Titan’s surface, it supports the idea that the moon’s environment might be capable of supporting prebiotic chemistry necessary for life to evolve.
The Cornell team hopes to continue investigating the moon’s ability to sustain life by conducting experiments on Earth modelled after Titan’s chemistry.
“If future observations could show there is prebiotic chemistry in a place like Titan, it would be a major breakthrough,” said Rahm in a press release. “This paper is indicating that prerequisites for processes leading to a different kind of life could exist on Titan, but this [is] only the first step.”
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