Don’t get too excited but… we may just have found the necessary conditions for alien life to exist on Saturn’s moon Titan.
Scientists at NASA have recently confirmed the existence of vinyl cyanide in Titan’s atmosphere. Vinyl cyanide is an organic compound which may potentially provide the cellular membranes for microbial life to form in Titan’s vast methane oceans reports Phys.org.
If true, it could prove that life can flourish without the ubiquitous H2O.
Here on Earth, cell membranes are composed of phospholipids: molecular chains with phosphorus-oxygen heads and carbon-chain tails that join together to form a flexible membrane in water.
Alternative form of life?
If Methane-based life should exist in the solar system, it would need an alternative to Earth’s phospholipid-based existence and would open up a much wider range of planets and moons to the possibility of extraterrestrial life—and one such possible alternative is vinyl cyanide.
So, how do we know there’s vinyl cyanide on Titan?
The Cassini spacecraft was one of the first to suggest there might by vinyl cyanide on Titan after its Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) picked it up as the spacecraft was orbiting Saturn. However, to confirm vinyl cyanide was really there, scientists used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), in the desert of Chile.
Maureen Palmer, a researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and lead author of an article describing the research in Science Advances, collected data from the ALMA and verified the presence of vinyl cyanide in the atmosphere of Titan, at altitudes above 200 kilometers, with its highest concentrations in areas above the south pole of Titan.
Speaking about the discovery Palmer, said: “If membranes can be made in a lab with a simulation of Titan’s ocean conditions, it would make us more optimistic about them really forming on Titan.”
She adds Titan is “an interesting chemical laboratory to study the boundaries of possible biochemistry for creating life”.
Titan is home to freezing temperatures which reach a staggering minus 179 degrees Celsius. In these low temperatures organic molecules in the atmosphere form droplets that rain down to fill methane lakes in a weather cycle similar to that of Earth’s water cycle. There, they could potentially create simple, microscopic life forms.
Palmer and her colleagues demonstrated that there is enough vinyl cyanide in Ligeia Mare, Titan’s northern lake, to form about 10 million cells per cubic centimeter, which is roughly 10 times more than the bacteria in Earth’s coastal oceans.
However, we still have to prove Vinyl cyanide can produce life, but an exciting study by Cornell University researchers that was also published in Science Advances made it an intriguing prospect.
Journal reference: Science Advances
Featured image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute