With its thick atmosphere, chemical makeup, and an atmospheric pressure not too far from Earth’s, Titan is one of the most likely candidates for finding life elsewhere in our solar system. But at a temperature close to -300 degrees Fahrenheit, the surface of this Saturnian moon in anything but what we humans would call hospitable. Since this frigid place is far too cold for liquid water, any life there would need an alternative survival method. A new study published in Astrophysical Journal Letters suggests that the simple hydrocarbon acetylene, proposed as a possible energy source for life on Titan, could be much more abundant than scientists previously thought.
Titan has previously been shown to be dotted with lakes of liquid hydrocarbons, primarily methane and ethane. An estimate made in 1989 suggested bodies of liquid hydrocarbons on Titan would contain a few parts in 10,000 of acetylene. But an updated estimate based on data from the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn now suggests the lakes contain much more food for any hungry alien life-forms that might be present [New Scientist]. Lead researcher Daniel Cordier says the acetylene abundance could be as high as one part in 100, or 1 percent, of the surface lakes on Titan.
Back in 2005 another team proposed the idea of organisms in Titan’s lakes that could pull the acetylene from its atmosphere and combine it with hydrogen to produce energy. If the new estimates from Cordier’s team are correct, that food supply would be much larger than scientists initially believed. Researchers don’t know, however, how thoroughly the chemicals in those lakes mix—if they stay in separate layers, they may not be able to produce enough chemical reactions to power organisms.
This new analysis could raise other questions besides those regarding life. “Our results provide the chemical data needed to compute the amount of deposition of various hydrocarbons and nitriles in fluvial valleys in … Titan’s midlatitudes,” says the team [Technology Review]. In other words: Geologists, start your calculators.
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