There’s been a lot of buzz in the space news world recently about findings by NASA scientists that may indicate the possibility of some sort of biological activity on Saturn’s cloud-covered moon, Titan. This has been carried to many different levels of excitement, depending on the individual reporters…what has NOT been announced is anything definitive in the least about the discovery of life anywhere outside our planet, much less a frigid moon coated in liquid methane and hydrocarbon mud. Still, the findings are very intriguing to astrobiologists; namely that computer models have noted a lack of hydrogen and acetylene in Titan’s thick atmosphere – thicker than our own, in fact – where there should be plenty of both. There are theories as to what may be causing this absence of organic elements, ranging from as-of-yet unknown chemical processes occurring on the distant moon to being the result of biological activity – methane-based “cryo-organisms” that have evolved on the moon to take advantage of its abundance of liquid hydrocarbons, despite its incredibly cold environment.
And, of course, there’s always the very real possibility of simple computer error. Results will have to be somehow replicated to even be considered…thus is the scientific way. 🙂
To try to make some sense of the media noise the Cassini imaging team has posted a report by NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay, in which he clarifies the findings and what they may mean. Some of it waxes a bit technical to those who perhaps didn’t get an “A” in high school chemistry the first time around *ahem* but it’s great to have some insight into what is nonetheless a very intriguing concept. Are we on the verge of discovering living organisms on another world, on a moon in our own solar system no less? It’s hard to not get one’s hopes up, what with all that it would mean…but I can be patient, I suppose. [/lie]
After all, if there IS life on Titan, it’s been waiting a very long time for us to find it. We can make sure we know just how to say “hello” before barging in.
On Earth organisms (like humans) can react O2 with organic material to derive energy for life’s functions. On Titan organisms could react H2 with organic material to derive energy. The waste product of O2 metabolism on Earth is CO2 and H2O; on Titan the waste product of H2 metabolism would be CH4. As a result of the Cassini mission, there is now abundant evidence for CH4, even in liquid form, on Titan.
– Chris McKay, Astrobiologist, NASA Ames Research Center