The paragon of where to find extraterrestrial life is arguably Europa–a world with water-ice crust–a moon of the gas giant Jupiter. But did you know that another moon in the outer Solar System has been gaining the attention of alien-hunting scientists, and media too? And the reason is that it may have the right components to support life, which is something that is totally different to humans and other life forms on Earth.
A recent study has underlined such possibility, claiming that Titan is more Earth-like thus making it a viable place to start humanity’s extraterrestrial life hunt.
Cornell scientists, who have used the data provided by NASA’s Cassini mission, have suggested that Titan may have the so-called “prebiotic chemical key,” or a component needed by the development of complex life.
The study’s lead author, postdoctoral research in Chemistry, Martin Rahm, has told the press that if future observations could show them that there’s “prebiotic chemistry in place like Titan,” it will be a major breakthrough. He also suggested that their paper offers a step towards finding prerequisites for processes leading to a “different kind of life” that could exist on Titan.
Although the study is groundbreaking, it isn’t the first to pinpoint the possibility of life on Titan. In fact, also at Cornell, scientists have already created a model which they say may exist on the methane-rich natural satellite.
Graduate student James Stevenson, astronomer Jonathan Lunine and chemical engineer Paulette Clancy, who have also used the Cassini data, unveiled the ‘azotosome’ last year, and it shows, they say, the possible cell membrane that might develop on the Saturn moon.
Comparing Titan to Earth
Life on Earth is believed to have originated in the sky; this is still debatable. However, scientists are certain that life here on our planet is based on the membrane called phospholipid bilayer, a strong, permeable, water-based vesicle that serves as the house of the organic matter of every cell. And the vesicle made from such membrane is called a liposome.
In the study’s press release, the team has indicated that the mistake of many extraterrestrial life hunters is their uninterrupted focus on planets with possible water-based life forms, or exoworlds that may have the same processes that have developed life on Earth.
“What if the cells weren’t based on water, but on methane, which has a much lower freezing point?” they have asked.
Enter now the liposome-like version for Titan, dubbed by them as azotosome, and it is made from nitrogen, hydrogen and carbon molecules which are known to exist in the seas of Titan.
Unlike the new study which focuses on finding prebiotic conditions to support life on Titan, the azotosome study published early last year is for the theory-side of the exploration. It is like a paper designed to convince NASA to prioritize the alien life-hunting mission to the methane-full world.
Possible exploration of Titan via NASA
On June 4 of 2014, NASA published a report online revealing its first concept for exploring life on Titan.
Titan is a “unique world” in the outer solar system, said NASA, and it is the only body outside of Earth with lakes and seas on surface, although which aren’t made of water.
“What lies beneath the surface of Titan’s seas?” the space agency asked, trying to pique the curiosity of scientists and enthusiasts.
Scientists at NASA are proposing the so-called Titan submarine, an early concept designed to explore the world’s northern sea, Kraken Mare. It will, according to NASA, autonomously explore and investigate the secrets of the said place by sprawling over about 1,000 km, with depths they estimate could reach 300m.
Kraken Mare is comparable in size to Earth’s The Great Lakes.
It is important to investigate the possibility of life in other places in the solar system, hence allowing the scientists to unravel the secrets of the evolution of life on Earth itself.