A new study has just been published which suggests the best spots to search for life on Saturn’s largest moon Titan. The conclusion that was reached is that the moon’s very largest craters show the most promising spots that could potentially harbor the building blocks of life.
Scientists have long wondered if there is life hidden on Titan and, if not, why there wouldn’t be. This moon of Saturn contains an atmosphere that is composed of methane and nitrogen, and both large and small liquid methane and ethane lakes can be found nestled on Titan’s surface, as Phys.org report.
While Titan is known for having quite extreme temperatures of -300 degrees Fahrenheit (-179 degrees Celsius), it could be that biochemical reactions may simply never happen. Yet scientists long to know if the possibility for life exists here, and one team has used data and imagery that were taken from both the Huygens Probe and the Cassini spacecraft to determine the best spots where biological molecules might lurk on this moon’s surface.
University of Western Ontario planetary scientist Dr. Catherine Neish led the most recent research on possible hiding places for life on Titan, and noted that craters were by far the best spots to search for this life.
“Craters really emerged as the clear winner for three main reasons. One, is that we’re pretty sure there are craters on Titan. Cratering is a very common geologic process and we see circular features that are almost certainly craters on the surface.”
The second reason why Titan’s craters would be an excellent place to search for life is because there would be a significant amount of melt in craters when compared with a cryovolcano, which, as Neish explained, is of considerable importance as craters “take longer to freeze so [the water] will stay liquid for longer.”
Dr. Neish also noted that the temperature of water inside these craters would be much higher, which translates to the possibility of chemical reaction rates which are much quicker than those found in a cryovolcano.
“The last point is that impact craters should produce water that’s at a higher temperature than a cryovolcano. Water could stay liquid in those environments for thousands of years, or even longer. When a cryovolcano erupts, it typically erupts right at the melting temperature of the ice, and we think any ‘lava’ on Titan would be heavily doped with ammonia, which suppresses the freezing point quite a bit so that would make the lava pretty cold.”
However, cryovolcanos may not even exist on Titan, as Neish was quick to add. All scientists can really point to now is a mountainous region known as Sotra Facula, which may or may not be a cryovolcano.
“Sotra Facula is perhaps the best and only example that we have of a cryovolcano on Titan. So it’s much rarer, if it exists at all.”
If scientists were to seriously look for life on Titan, the best craters to search in would be Selk, Menrva, and Sinlap, which are by far the largest craters that can be found on this moon.
While a probe could certainly be sent to Titan to investigate these craters, not all scientists believe that there should be an immediate mission to Saturn’s largest moon, according to Dr. David Grinspoon of the Planetary Science Institute.
“We don’t know where to search even with results like this. I wouldn’t use it to guide our next mission to Titan. It’s premature. Because there is so little that we actually know about the planet, it makes more sense to characterize a range of environments first.”
The new study on the best spots to search for life on Titan has been published in Astrobiology.