Saturn’s moon Titan is one of the likeliest places in the solar system to host life – outside of Earth, of course. Now, researchers just added more weight to that claim after they analyzed Titan’s chemical makeup.

Light could pass through Titan’s hazy atmosphere, creating the necessary conditions for life to emerge. Image via NASA.

Martin Rahm, a postdoctoral researcher in chemistry and lead author of the new study, believes that the presence of hydrogen cyanide (HCN) molecules in the atmosphere could pave the way for different forms of life to evolve. HCN reacts to form polymers including polyimine, and polyimine is able to absorb a wide spectrum of light. This would suggest that light could pass through Titan’s dense and hazy atmosphere – one of the main questions about Titan’s habitability.

“Polyimine can exist as different structures, and they may be able to accomplish remarkable things at low temperatures, especially under Titan’s conditions,” said chemist Martin Rahm from Cornell University.

“We are used to our own conditions here on Earth,” he adds. “Our scientific experience is at room temperature and ambient conditions. Titan is a completely different beast.”

The atmosphere of Titan is largely nitrogen; minor components lead to the formation of methane and ethane clouds and nitrogen-rich organic smog. Just like on Earth, Titan’s surface is riddled with lakes, rivers, and seas, but they’re not made from liquid water, they’re made from methane. Titan’s methane cycle is analogous to Earth’s water cycle, although at the much lower temperature of about 94 K (−179.2 °C).

However, this is still circumstantial evidence. It shows that there could be life on Titan that the prerequisites exist for life to emerge and develop. We’re now awaiting for future, on-site observations to confirm that biological life does exist.

“If future observations could show there is prebiotic chemistry in a place like Titan, it would be a major breakthrough,” said Rahm. “This paper is indicating that prerequisites for processes leading to a different kind of life could exist on Titan, but this [is] only the first step.”

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