Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, could support a very different kind life, according to a new study.
Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from Cornell University say that despite the moon’s harsh environment, a “prebiotic chemical key” likely exists in the form of hydrogen cyanide. The compound is produced when sunlight interacts with the moon’s “toxic” atmosphere made up of nitrogen and methane.
The conclusion was reached based on data from NASA’s Cassini and Huygen’s missions.
Hydrogen cyanide is an organic chemical capable of reacting with other molecules, “forming long chains, or polymers, one of which is called polyimine. Polyimine is flexible, which helps mobility under very cold conditions, and it can absorb the sun’s energy and become a possible catalyst for life,” researchers said.
“Polyimine can exist as different structures, and they may be able to accomplish remarkable things at low temperatures, especially under Titan’s conditions,” said Martin Rahm, postdoctoral researcher in chemistry and lead author of the new study. This paper is a starting point, as we are looking for prebiotic chemistry in conditions other than Earth’s. “We are used to our own conditions here on Earth. Our scientific experience is at room temperature and ambient conditions. Titan is a completely different beast.”
Other moons in the solar system have also been identified as having conditions that could support life, including Saturn’s Enceladus and Jupiter’s Europa.
While both Earth and Titan have flowing liquids in the form of lakes, rivers and oceans, on Titan they are filled with liquid methane and ethane, not water. Also, the moon is too cold to have liquid water.
“We need to continue to examine this, to understand how the chemistry evolves over time. We see this as a preparation for further exploration,” said Rahm.
“If future observations could show there is prebiotic chemistry in a place like Titan, it would be a major breakthrough. This paper is indicating that prerequisites for processes leading to a different kind of life could exist on Titan, but this only the first step,” he added.