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Could Titan's Hydrocarbon Chemistry Have Crossed the Chasm to Life? (Today's Most Popular)


Saturn’s giant moon Titan has water frozen as hard as granite and Great Lakes-sized bodies of fed by a complete liquid cycle, much like the hydrological cycle on Earth, but made up of methane and ethane rather than water. Methane and ethane, the simplest hydrocarbon molecules, can assemble themselves into fantastically complex structures. Since complex hydrocarbons form the basis of life on Earth, scientists are wondering if hydrocarbon chemistry on Titan could have crossed the chasm from inanimate matter to some form of life?

Titan has been considered a “unique world in the solar system” since 1908 when, the Spanish astronomer, José Comas y Solá, discovered that it had an atmosphere, something non-existent on other moons.
It seems perfectly appropriate that one of the prime candidates for life in our solar system, Saturn's largest moon, should have surface lakes, lightning, shorelines, relatively thick nitrogen atmosphere -- and seasons. Titan can be viewed as an early-model Earth. And 100% of all known Earths have awesome life on them. The significantly lower temperature is a bit of a stumbling block (it's ten times as far from the sun as us), but there's a strong possibility of subterranean microbial life -- or even a prebiotic "Life could happen!" environment.

If a space traveler ever visits Titan, they will find a world where temperatures plunge to minus 274 degrees Fahrenheit, methane rains from the sky and dunes of ice or tar cover the planet's most arid regions -- a cold mirror image of Earth's tropical climate, according to scientists at the University of Chicago.

Titan's ice is stronger than most bedrock found on earth, yet it is more brittle, causing it to erode more easily, according to new research by San Francisco State University Assistant Professor Leonard Sklar. Sklar and his team developed new measurements from tests on ice as cold as minus 170 degrees Celcius which demonstrate that ice gets stronger as temperature decreases. Understanding ice and its resistance to erosion is critical to answering how Titan's earth-like landscape formed. Titan has lakes, rivers and dunes, but its bedrock is made of ice as cold as minus 180 degrees Celcius, eroded by rivers of liquid methane.

"You have all these things that are analogous to Earth. At the same time, it's foreign and unfamiliar," said Ray Pierrehumbert, the Louis Block Professor in Geophysical Sciences at Chicago.

The-lagoons-of-titan-oily-liquid-confirmed-on-saturn-moon1 Titan, one of Saturn's 60 moons, is the only moon in the solar system large enough to support an atmosphere. Pierrehumbert and colleague Jonathan Mitchell, have been comparing observations of Titan collected by the Cassini space probe and the Hubble Space Telescope with their own computer simulations of the moon's atmosphere.

"One of the things that attracts me about Titan is that it has a lot of the same circulation features as Earth, but done with completely different substances that work at different temperatures," Pierrehumbert said. On Earth, for example, water forms liquid and is relatively active as a vapor in the atmosphere. But on Titan, water is a rock. "It's not more volatile on Titan than sand is on Earth."

Methane-natural gas-assumes an Earth-like role of water on Titan. It exists in enough abundance to condense into rain and form puddles on the surface within the range of temperatures that occur on Titan.

"The ironic thing on Titan is that although it's much colder than Earth, it actually acts like a super-hot Earth rather than a snowball Earth, because at Titan temperatures, methane is more volatile than water vapor is at Earth temperatures," Pierrehumbert said.

Pierrehumbert and Mitchell even go so far as to call Titan's climate tropical, even though it sounds odd for a moon that orbits Saturn more than nine times farther from the sun than Earth. Along with the behavior of methane, Titan's slow rotation rate also contributes to its tropical nature. Earth's tropical weather systems extend only to plus or minus 30 degrees of latitude from the equator. But on Titan, which rotates only once every 16 days, "the tropical weather system extends to the entire planet," Pierrehumbert said.

Titan's dense, nitrogen-methane atmosphere responds much more slowly than Earth's atmosphere, as it receives about 100 times less sunlight than Earth. Seasons on Titan last more than seven Earth years. Its clouds form and move much like those on Earth, but in a much slower, more lingering fashion.

Physicists from the University of Granada and University of Valencia, analyzing data sent by the Cassini-Huygens probe from Titan, have “unequivocally” proved that there is natural electrical activity on Titan. The world scientist community believes that the probability of organic molecules, precursors of life, being formed is higher on planets or moons which have an atmosphere with electrical storms.

Scientists with NASA's Cassini mission have monitored Titan's atmosphere for three-and-a-half years, between July 2004 and December 2007, and observed more than 200 clouds. They found that the way these clouds are distributed around Titan matches scientists' global circulation models. The only exception is timing -- clouds are still noticeable in the southern hemisphere while fall is approaching.

"Titan's clouds don't move with the seasons exactly as we expected," said Sebastien Rodriguez of the University of Paris Diderot, in collaboration with Cassini visual and infrared mapping spectrometer team members at the University of Nantes, France. "We see lots of clouds during the summer in the southern hemisphere, and this summer weather seems to last into the early fall. It looks like Indian summer on Earth, even if the mechanisms are radically different on Titan from those on Earth. Titan may then experience a warmer and wetter early autumn than forecasted by the models."

On Earth, abnormally warm, dry weather periods in late autumn occur when low-pressure systems are blocked in the winter hemisphere. By contrast, scientists think the sluggishness of temperature changes at the surface and low atmosphere on Titan may be responsible for its unexpected warm and wet, hence cloudy, late summer.

Scientists will continue to observe the long-term changes during Cassini's extended mission, which runs until the fall of 2010, which will offer plenty of opportunities to monitor climate change on Titan -- the spacecraft makes its next flyby of the moon on June 6. We'll learn if the sluggish weather is the result of a slow rate of temperature change at the surface.

Cassini results so far don't show if Titan has an ocean beneath the surface, but scientists say this hypothesis is very plausible and they intend to keep investigating. Detecting tides induced by Saturn, a goal of the radio science team, would provide the clearest evidence for such a hidden water layer.

"Additional flybys may tell us whether the crust is thick or thin today," says Jonathan Lunine, a Cassini interdisciplinary investigator with the University of Rome, Tor Vergata, Italy, and the University of Arizona, Tucson. "With that information we may have a better understanding of how methane, the ephemeral working fluid of Titan's rivers, lakes and clouds, has been resupplied over geologic time. Like the history of water on Earth, this is fundamental to a deep picture of the nature of Titan through time."

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency.

The image at the top of the page is a NASA/JPL artist's concept of lake on Titan.

The Daily Galaxy via the University of Chicago and

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