Life on Titan?

According to Ars Technica, new atmospheric data, and two new science papers, are pointing to some things that are consistent with life on Titan:

Something strange is afoot in the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan, according to data sent back from the Cassini mission. Data returned from a spectrometer on Cassini indicates that there’s a large flux of hydrogen in the moon’s atmosphere, with the gas forming in the upper atmosphere and being removed from the atmosphere at Titan’s surface. We don’t currently know what process is ensuring its removal, but the amounts of hydrogen being taken out of the atmosphere are consistent with an earlier proposal of methane-based life. . . .

With little oxygen to react with, the molecular hydrogen should remain stable. Some of it will escape into space, but a new paper indicates that a substantial amount of that hydrogen migrates down through the atmosphere towards Titan’s surface.

Since it’s not accumulating there, some chemical process must be removing it from the atmosphere; right now, we don’t know what that process is, and, as NASA’s own news piece on the topic notes, the first option for scientists is to consider simple chemistry.

However, the abstract of the paper notes that this level of hydrogen consumption is consistent with an earlier prediction of methanogenic life. In short, the life would get its energy by “burning” the hydrogen with a carbon source instead of oxygen, releasing methane (CH4) in the process. The source of the carbon is where a second paper (not yet online) comes in. Models of Titan’s upper atmosphere suggest that significant amounts of acetylene should be produced by the reactions there, and this would provide an excellent source of carbon to any hypothetical metabolisms. The surprise of the second paper is that there’s very little acetylene to be found on Titan’s surface.

Hmm. Do you believe that there is life on Titan?

Should you?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to Life on Titan?

  1. Would we be able to recognize it as alive from our frame of reference? What kind “life” would enjoy temperatures that make methane a liquid.

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