Saturn's moon Titan has two vital ingredients that could produce life

James Marshall
August 1, 2017

Ample amounts of the vinyl cyanide can be found in the moon's liquid methane oceans, and it is potentially a vital component for life to form within these freezing methane seas. This moon presumably has in the atmosphere's composition a chemical called acrylonitrile. The probe found vinyl cyanide after testing Titan's atmosphere, but measurements at the time were not conclusive. Saturn's moon is thought to be able to compose flexible and stable arrangements that resemble cell membranes. However, vinyl cyanide mixed with liquid methane - a substance Titan has lakes of - could very well foster the development of those essential cell membranes. As a result, scientists feel encouraged to continue studying it. It was found that acrylonitrile is the most suitable chemical to protect similar structures to cell membranes found on Earth and offer them the chance to survive in such a hostile environment. The chemical researchers are talking about is a molecule spotted by astronomers.

"The ability to form a stable membrane to separate the internal environment from the external one is important because it provides a means to contain chemicals long enough to allow them to interact", said Michael Mumma, director of the Goddard Center for Astrobiology.

The researchers calculated how much material could be deposited in Ligeia Mare, Titan's second-largest lake, which occupies roughly the same surface area as Earth's Lake Huron and Lake Michigan together. Of course, unlike showers of water, rainfall on Titan is liquid methane.

Similar to auroras on Earth, Saturn's auroras are formed by charged particles raining down on the planet, colliding with the atmosphere and creating light, according to a statement from NASA.

Now, using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) a team of scientists have used archival data to find compelling evidence that molecules of a compound known as acrylonitrile (C2H3CN) are present on Titan and in significant quantities. From the data, Palmer and her team determined that acrylonitrile is relatively abundant in Titan's atmosphere, reaching concentrations of up to 2.8 parts per billion.

"The detection of this elusive, astrobiologically relevant chemical is exciting for scientists who are eager to determine if life could develop on icy worlds such as Titan", said Goddard scientist Martin Cordiner, senior author on the paper. But they do show that within certain established parameters, life could exist within our Solar System well-beyond the limits of our Sun's "habitable zone".

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