Monday, June 7, 2010

Life On Titan

Last weekend I spent some time reporting for The Mantle from the World Science Festival. During a presentation titled “The Science of Star Trek”, one of the panelists said he believed we would find fairly conclusive proof of life outside of Earth within the next 20 years. That’s why this story from Russia’s RIA Novosti caught my eye: according to the report, NASA scientists analyzing data from the Cassini spacecraft currently orbiting Saturn has discovered what they think might be signs of primitive life on the planet’s moon, Titan.

Titan is a bitterly cold (-300 degrees) place where there the seas are made of hydrocarbons rather than water (insert your own BP joke here). Scientists studying the chemistry of the surface from data collected by Cassini have found a lack of acetylene on the surface – some biologists theorize that because of the extremely low temperatures on Titan’s surface, life that uses liquid methane as a basis for their biological functions, rather than water like lifeforms on Earth, may have evolved there. These methane-based life forms would likely “eat” acetylene, which could explain the lack of the material on the surface.

Of course there could be a host of non-lifeform related reasons for the lack of acetylene as well, but scientists at NASA aren’t dismissing the idea of life on Titan just yet and are planning to collect more data from future Cassini fly-bys to try to sort out the mystery.
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