Could life exist on Titan?

Cold temperatures and harsh conditions make Titan one of the last places in the Solar System we might expect life to exist. But data sent back by the Cassini-Huygens mission has revealed the Saturnian moon could contain the right chemicals for certain kinds of life to flourish.

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Image of Titan’s surface captured by the Huygens probe on 14 January 2005
Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Saturn’s moon Titan may have the potential to host life in future, according to data sent back by NASA, ESA and ASI's Cassini-Huygens mission.

Analysis of the moon’s atmosphere reveals chemical elements that suggest the conditions may be prebiotic, or potentially capable of supporting life.

Titan is Saturn’s largest moon and hosts rivers, seas and lakes, just like Earth. However, these bodies consist of liquid methane and ethane, rather than water, while the moon’s atmosphere contains nitrogen and methane. When sunlight shines through the atmosphere, the reaction produces hydrogen cyanide, which could be a potentially prebiotic chemical.

Hydrogen cyanide can react with other molecules to form polymers, including one called polyimine. This polymer can absorb energy from the Sun and become a possible catalyst for life. It is thought that polyimine’s robustness should make it able to withstand the cold temperatures and harsh conditions found on Titan.

The study is part of an initiative by a team at Cornell University to examine prebiotic chemistry outside of Earth.

“We need to continue to examine this, to understand how the chemistry evolves over time. We see this as a preparation for further exploration,” says Martin Rahm, leader of the study. “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.”


Carousel image: An infrared view of Titan captured by the Cassini probe
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
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