scorecardBuilding blocks of life discovered in Titan’s atmosphere — NASA discovers a ‘weird’ molecule on Saturn’s largest moon
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Building blocks of life discovered in Titan’s atmosphere — NASA discovers a ‘weird’ molecule on Saturn’s largest moon

Building blocks of life discovered in Titan’s atmosphere — NASA discovers a ‘weird’ molecule on Saturn’s largest moon
LifeScience2 min read
NASA's Cassini spacecraft gathered radar data revealing that the small liquid lakes in Titan's northern hemisphere are surprisingly deep, perched atop hills and filled with methane    NASA
  • A rare molecule called cyclopropenylidene has been found on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.
  • In Titan’s dense atmosphere, the molecule is capable of creating life when it comes into contact with other compounds.
  • This is significant because Titan is dubbed to be the most Earth-like entity in the entire solar system.
Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, continues to surprise. This time with a ‘weird’ molecule that’s never been found in any other known atmosphere. Called cyclopropenylidene, it’s capable of creating life when it comes into contact with other molecules.

Titan1_edited2
These infrared images of Saturn's moon Titan represent some of the clearest global views of the icy moon's surface. The views were created using 13 years of data acquired by the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer instrument onboard NASA's Cassini spacecraft.
     NASA

This is a big deal because out of over 200 moons within our solar system, and 62 that belong to Saturn alone, Titan is considered to be the most like Earth.

Its atmosphere is four times as dense but like Earth, it’s mostly made up of hydrogen with a hint of methane mixed in. There are clouds, rain, lakes, rivers and even a subsurface ocean filled with salty water.

titan_subsurface
Artist's concept shows a possible scenario for the internal structure of Titan, as suggested by data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft.      A. Tavani/NASA

Scientists believe that the types of molecules sitting on Titan’s surface could be the same ones that formed the building block of life on Earth 3.8 to 2.5 billion years ago.

Life on Titan
Cyclopropenylidene is three parts of carbon and two parts hydrogen. Even though scientists on Earth do know of its existence, it's barely heard of. While it is not used in modern-day biological reactions, the molecule is important as it forms the backbone of DNA and RNA — both critical in the creation of life.

titan atmosphere
Titan's atmosphere compared to Earth's      NASA

“When I realized I was looking at cyclopropenylidene, my first thought was, ‘Well, this is really unexpected,’” remarked Conor Nixon, who led the study at National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Goddard Space Flight Centre using the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA).

Even though scientists have previously found this molecule around the galaxy is independent regions, it has never before been detected within an atmosphere. This is surprising because cyclopropenylidene can react very easily with other molecules. It can even form different species.

In pockets around the galaxy, the molecule is usually surrounded by clouds of gas and dust. The areas are too cold and inadvertently diffuse many chemical reactions.

However, on Titan, the moon’s dense atmosphere could allow cyclopropenylidene to serve as the building blocks for more complex compounds, possibly those capable of forming or feeding life.

Scientists are hoping to find out more through NASA’s Dragonfly mission. It is scheduled to take off from Earth in 2026 and reach Titan by 2034.

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