Life on Titan? Farewell to Cassini

Cody Wolf

Researchers have recently discovered evidence for a molecule that may indicate potential life on Saturn’s moon; Titan.

There has been immense interest in regard to Titan. With it being the largest of Saturn’s 62 moons, and a nitrogen based atmosphere, scientists have been trying to understand it further. Part of our interest has stemmed from the famous Cassini orbital that has been orbiting around Saturn gathering data about the planet and its many moons.

Now, an article published in Science Advances further elucidates the potential this moon has on fostering alien life.

Life  would be challenging…well impossible….living on Titan due to its extremely cold temperature. By cold we are talking about -178 degrees Celsius ( -350 Fahrenheit). At this temperature, surface water is frozen. However, Titan happens to have another liquid source that makes up its lakes and seas; methane.

Methane on Earth cannot exactly support life, considering it is gaseous and highly flammable. With the freezing temperatures on the moon however, methane is present in liquid form and acts similar to what water does here on Earth.

These liquid methane pools provide an excellent source for other other molecules, even ones that might promote life formation.

 

Previous studies have suggested that vinyl cyanide (also known as acrylonitrile) might be present on Titan.

This molecule is has been shown through computer models to hold potential for forming membrane-like spheres able to protect molecules….like DNA for example. These membranes are important for early life, due to their capabilities of protecting and preserving genetic information and forming barriers to provide selective entrance and exit of molecules.

saturn 4
Source

Studies have shown that vinyl cyanide is also present in the “methane seas” to create millions of cell like bubbles per centimeter.

This data is very exciting, however it is still far away from confirming life on other planets.

And while we have learned a substantial amount about Titan, there is much left to learn.

 

How did scientists discover all of this information?

A good portion of the discoveries were made by a beautiful piece of equipment; the Cassini Orbiter.

In 1997, Cassini was launched from Earth, destined to reveal the great mysteries of our outer solar system. One of the major targets was, of course, Saturn. Cassini’s first picture of the planet was October 31st 2002, at approximately 177 million miles away (about twice the distance of the Earth from the Sun).

Saturn 1
This is not the first picture Cassini took of Saturn. Source: https://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/science/overview/caption

Cassini then spent the next 16 years evaluating Saturn extensively. From examining the  famous ring structures, analyzing the surface of Titan, and even discovering two previously unknown moons, Cassini has enlightened and excited the human population with data and beautiful photographs.

saturn 2
Surface of Titan. Taken in 2005 Source:  https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/spaceimages/details.php?id=PIA08113

 

saturn 3
Picture of Earth taken from Saturn. The arrow indicates Earth Source: https://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/resources/5868/

A major part of Cassini’s contribution to science was not just snapping amazing photographs, but also to analyze the atmospheres and states of Saturn and its moons. It is partially from Cassini that we can thank the research done in the article mentioned above.

Unfortunately however, all good things must come to an end. After 20 years, Cassini is (as I am typing this blog) beginning its descent towards Saturn for its final mission. Eventually it will vaporize and be destroyed by Saturn’s atmosphere. While it goes down, it will collect and transmit every ounce of data it can about the atmosphere and the innermost rings of Saturn. The spacecraft will also degrade in such a way that it will not damage any moons that could harness life (Titan for example).

We at Copernicus Called would personally like to thank the craft Cassini for everything it has done for science and science communication. It is through these wonderful experiments that we understand just how expansive the universe is, and how much the human population has left to learn. We highly recommend that you visit NASA’s website and see all of the incredible accomplishments scientists have made with Cassini and other spacecrafts.  

If you have any questions, as always, do not hesitate to email us directly at copernicuscalledblog@gmail.com. You can also contact us through Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.

 

Remember to always be curious, and stay mindful!

 

Sources:

  1. Palmer, Maureen Y. ALMA detection and astrobiological potential of vinyl cyanide on Titan. Sciences Advances. 2017; 3:e170002. http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/7/e1700022
  2. Saey, Tina Hesman. Potential ingredient for alien life found on Titan. ScienceNews. July 28, 2017. https://www.sciencenews.org/article/potential-ingredient-alien-life-found-titan
  3. https://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/the-journey/timeline/#launch-from-cape-canaveral
  4. Cover photograph-https://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/
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