New Take on Titan Hints at More Fuel for Potential Life

By Andrew Moseman | November 23, 2009 1:35 pm

titan220With 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.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: A Moon Full of Smust (Smust being the smog/dust combo that covers Titan)
DISCOVER: The Search For Aliens Gets Harder—But More Encouraging
80beats: New Evidence for Ice-Spewing Volcanoes on Saturn’s Moon Titan
80beats: Hydrocarbon Lake on Saturnian Moon May Be a Hotspot for Alien Life

Image: NASA

  • Mike

    The potential ingredients are there…but I bet it’s too cold for anything to get started. The Earth had volcanoes, steam and heat from the sun…plus all the other elements that are needed for life (that we know of) that they don’t mention as being known of on Titan (is there sulphur, etc?). Although fascinating…I think spending billions to find out if some weird bacteria-like creature exists in an ethane lake is a waste of money…especially as the only decent planet known is sick and decaying under our careless use/abuse. Spending billions to suck up some ehtane by a probe vs. billions to say…go towards helping our oceans from acidifying and turning to algae filled murky sludge filled with jellyfish. I vote for keeping the money here…

  • Jhem

    I, for one, welcomes our new acetylene-hydrogen combining alien overlords…

  • Cory

    @1. Bifurcation is a logical fallacy. NASA is not an opportunity cost from environmental activities, it is alongside and separate. Taking billions from NASA would not free them up to be used on the environment. And, of course, a free, democratic government can only take curative measures with extra money.

  • Cuffie Dr Dre Beats

    of course, a free, democratic government can only take curative measures with extra money.of course, a free, democratic government can only take curative measures with extra money.


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