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Saturn’s largest moon Titan is often called an analogy to early Earth, with its thick, chemical-rich atmosphere and widespread system of flowing rivers and north polar lakes. But located almost a billion miles away from the Sun, everything on Titan is shifted into a completely different—and frigid—level of existence from that found on Earth. With surface temperatures of 300 degrees below zero F, the lakes are filled with liquid methane and what’s life-giving water here is literally solid rock there. Even the rain on Titan falls as oversized drops of ethane.
But even in this extreme cryo-environment it’s possible that life may right now exist…life relying on an entirely different chemistry than what’s possible on our planet.
Recently scientists have identified a molecule on Titan called vinyl cyanide, or acrylonitrile. To Earthly life acrylonitrile is toxic and carcinogenic; luckily for us it isn’t naturally-occurring here. But on Titan it is and apparently in quantity; it’s possible that vinyl cyanide, raining down from Titan’s atmosphere into its vast hydrocarbon lakes, could even help form methane-based cell structures in much the same way phospholipids do here.
The molecule (C2H3CN) has the ability to form membranes and, if found in liquid pools of hydrocarbons on Titan’s surface, it could form a kind of lipid-based cell membrane analog of living organisms on Earth. In other words, this molecule could stew in primordial pools of hydrocarbons and arrange itself in such a way to create a “protocell” that is “stable and flexible in liquid methane,” said Jonathan Lunine (Cornell University) who, in 2015, was a member of the team who modeled vinyl cyanide and found that it might form cell membranes.
Further evidence of life “not as we know it?” Read more on Ian O’Neill’s Astroengine blog here: Vinyl Cyanide Confirmed: Weird Form of Alien Life May Be Possible on Saturn’s Moon Titan and in a Gizmodo article by Maddie Stone here: Potential Building Block of Alien Life Spotted in Titan’s Atmosphere
At the north pole of Saturn’s largest moon Titan lie the largest (and only known) bodies of surface liquid in the Solar System outside of Earth. But on Titan, where temperatures are regularly around negative 300ºF, the liquid isn’t water but rather methane and ethane: compounds which are found as gases here on Earth. Titan’s seas and lakes are exotic environments that scientists are only just starting to understand, and even with radar imaging by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft there’s a lot we just don’t know about them. But one thing some researchers have managed to figure out using simulated Titan environments in the lab is that these lakes may sometimes fizz with bubbles of nitrogen—potentially explaining some of the mysteries of Cassini’s observations.
“Thanks to this work on nitrogen’s solubility, we’re now confident that bubbles could indeed form in the seas, and in fact may be more abundant than we’d expected,” said Jason Hofgartner of JPL, who serves as a co-investigator on Cassini’s radar team and was a co-author of the study.
Read the news straight from NASA here: Experiments Show Titan Lakes May Fizz with Nitrogen
When you think of spacecraft landings on other worlds, you probably first think of Mars, the Moon, Venus, and comet 67P (if you’ve been following along over the past couple of years.) But—in addition to the asteroid Eros and hard impacts on a comet and Mercury—Saturn’s moon Titan was also visited by an alien (i.e., Earthly) spacecraft back in January of 2005. ESA’s Huygens probe, which traveled to Saturn onboard the Cassini orbiter, was deployed to the surface of Titan six months after Cassini arrived in orbit at Saturn. Huygens took 20 days to reach the cloud-covered moon, and during its two-and-a-half hour descent on Jan. 14, 2005 transmitted our first—and last—views from below Titan’s clouds and even from its methane-slush-covered surface. It was the first landing on a moon other than our own and the farthest landing from the Sun, but hopefully not the final time we’ll visit the fascinating surface of this icy moon.
Read more and watch the video of the Huygens probe landing on the Cassini mission site: Huygens: ‘Ground Truth’ from an Alien Moon
Floating high above Titan’s hydrocarbon lakes, wispy clouds have finally started to return to the moon’s northern latitudes…but in much less numbers than expected.
Models of Titan’s climate have predicted more cloud activity during early northern summer than what Cassini has observed so far, suggesting that the current understanding of the giant moon’s changing seasons is incomplete.
Obviously this is a totally-for-fun sci-fi video, but what a video! Created by Oscar-nominated Irish filmmaker Ruairi Robinson, it shows fleets of very industrial-looking fighter skiffs hunting giant flying eels through the skies of some very cloudy planet… the first thought that came to my mind was Titan! (Although Titan is more hazy than cloudy but that’s just getting nitpicky.) Check out the video above… if this ever becomes a feature-length film I know I’ll be buying a ticket for sure.
HT to my Facebook friend and fantasy artist Bob Eggleton.
Credit: Ruairi Robinson. Developed with the assistance of the Irish Film Board.
UPDATE 3/23: This proof-of-concept short may become a feature length movie, thanks to District 9 director Neill Blomkamp and X-Men: Days of Future Past producer Simon Kinberg… and also to all the people on the ‘net who have been raving about it! Read more on The Verge here.