Scientists have discovered something quite interesting about Saturn’s moon Titan — a chemical “ingredient of life” that could allow the satellite to sustain microscopic organisms.
According to a report from the Verge, this isn’t the first time that scientists have suspected that Titan may have vinyl cyanide, a molecule found in the moon’s atmosphere that could serve as a building block for cellular life. Specifically, NASA’s Cassini probe had detected signs of this molecule when investigating Titan’s atmosphere, but wasn’t able to come up with conclusive measurements.
The new study, however, suggests that there is a “large amount” of vinyl cyanide in the upper atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan. In a paper published this week in the journal Science Advances, the researchers explained how they concluded that Titan has this key ingredient of life, making use of the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) observatory in Chile.
As the Verge noted, Titan’s geographical features include liquid methane lakes, and the researchers involved in the new study were wondering whether methane could serve as a substitute for water as an ingredient of life. That’s why they made use of computer simulations in 2015 to determine which molecules could come together to form stable cell membranes in Titan’s methane lakes.
With vinyl cyanide emerging as a likely feature of Titan’s atmosphere, the astronomers headed to Chile’s Atacama Desert. The Verge wrote that the ALMA observatory is “great for detecting super-cold gases in space,” thanks to its array of 66 individual telescopes and ability to release radio waves when gas molecules transfer from high levels of energy to lower levels.
Based on their findings on Saturn’s moon Titan, the researchers were only able to find vinyl cyanide in the satellite’s upper atmosphere. Still, they believe that the compound may also be found in the methane lakes, due to methane going through weather cycles not too different from what we experience here on Earth. With methane transforming into liquid raindrops in Titan’s atmosphere, the vinyl cyanide may be “hitching a ride” on the methane rain, and making its way down to the lakes, allowing it to theoretically create stable cell membranes.
All in all, the researchers were able to detect what could be about 10 million cell membranes per cubic centimeter in Ligeia Mare, one of the largest lakes on Saturn’s moon Titan. That’s led them to believe that more research must be done on Titan in hopes of confirming that there may be some form of life existing on the moon, but as co-author Martin Cordiner of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center said in an interview with the Verge, that shouldn’t be taken as a sign that there is, or was life on Titan.
“This is a far cry from saying [life] definitely happens on Titan and these cells are involved in some kind of primitive life. But it gives us a starting point in that discussion. If there was going to be life in Titan’s oceans, then it’s plausible vinyl cyanide could be a component of that.”
In the meantime, the researchers are hoping that NASA would launch another probe to Saturn’s moon Titan, hopefully one that would be capable of floating on the moon’s methane lakes. That, according to Gizmodo, would be the best way to determine whether Titan is indeed capable of harboring some “seriously weird” life forms, as a result of the apparent ingredients of life within it.
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