Scientists have made yet another sensational discovery in the search for alien life in our solar system. Astronomers have now found a key molecule for the formation of microorganisms in the atmosphere of Titan, one of Saturn’s largest moons.
The international Cassini-Huygens mission has made a groundbreaking detection of a molecule that is fundamental in the production of complex organics inside the hazy atmosphere of Saturn’s largest moon Titan.
The ESA Cassini spacecraft has detected by surprise, in the hazy atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan, a particular type of negatively charged molecule that is fundamental in the production of complex organic molecules. Artist’s impression of Saturn View from Titan / iasos.com
Titan, mankind’s next stop?
There are many mysterious surrounding Saturn’s largest moon Titan, the second largest of the Solar System, after Ganymede.
Composed mainly of ice and rocks, Titan has a diameter 50% larger than the Moon and is 80% more massive. Its atmosphere, composed mostly of nitrogen and methane, is dense and opaque. Something that has prevented scientists from being able to take a peek at its surface until relatively recently.
Recent research has allowed astronomers to learn more about the alien moon.
Its geologically young surface is a rocky wasteland, covered here and there by a few hydrocarbon lakes.
The cryogenic volcanoes are another of the trademarks of Titan’s landscape.
Around 100 kilometers below the surface, scientists postulate that there could be a sea composed mainly of water and ammonia, although it is still unknown whether it harbors some type of life, either unicellular or multicellular.
Graphic depicting some of the chemical reactions taking place in Titan’s atmosphere that lead to the generation of organic haze particles. Credit: ESA
But for us to speak about the latest discovery made by Cassini, we must not look at Titan’s surface and landscape, but direct our gaze to the heights, because it is in Titan’s atmosphere that new and interesting finds have been made.
In a study published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, scientists have discovered a chemical called “carbon chain anion,” a linear molecule that is often part of other more complex molecules that are based on the oldest forms of life on Earth.
The discoveries were made thanks to Cassini’s plasma spectrometer, called CAPS, while the spacecraft traversed Titan’s high atmosphere, between 950 and 1,300 kilometers above the surface.
“We have made the first unambiguous identification of carbon chain anions in a planet-like atmosphere, which we believe are a vital stepping-stone in the production line of growing bigger, and more complex organic molecules, such as the moon’s large haze particles,” says Ravi Desai of University College London and lead author of the study.“This is a known process in the interstellar medium, but now we’ve seen it in an entirely different environment, meaning it could represent a universal process for producing complex organic molecules. The question here is, could it also be occurring within other nitrogen-methane atmospheres like Pluto or Triton, or at exoplanets which contain similar properties? The possibility of a universal pathway towards the ingredients for life has implications for what we should search for in the quest for life in the Universe,” says co-author Andrew Coates, also from UCL, and co-investigator of CAPS.“Titan has a local example of exciting and exotic chemistry, from which we have much to learn.”And while many mysteries are yet to be revealed under Titan’s misty, cold mantle, great progress is made with every new mission.
The only thing we can say is certain is that thanks to studies and exploration of this type, science is closer to determining what life is and how it reproduces itself in the unfathomable and enigmatic sidereal space.