The hunt for alien life has mostly focused in recent decades on Mars, and not without good reason. The Red Planet is believed to have once looked like a young Earth, with a hot and humid climate and surface waters – a key building block of life. To date, space agency’s have launched five rovers to Mars, including this year’s Perseverance Rover, as well as numerous surface and orbital probes.
Planets like Saturn and Jupiter might be inhospitable, but astronomers speculate their moons could yet hold many secrets.
And with recent developments, such as the discovery of phosphine on Venus – a gas associated with microbial life – more and more scientists believe Mars will no longer hog the spotlight.
A new study published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics has examined the chemical composition of elements on the moon Titan and has found some promising leads.
Titan is Saturn’s biggest moon and among the more than 100 known moons in the solar system, it is the only known world to have a substantial atmosphere.
What is even more exciting about Titan, is the moon is the only place besides Earth to have liquid rivers, lakes and seas on its surface.
However, according to the US space agency NASA, these lakes are mostly made of methane and methane.
Dr Catherine Neish, from the University of Western Ontario and the new study’s lead author, said: “Titan has weather. It’s not unlike the Earth in that way.
“It’s just that the ingredients are all wrong. It has methane rain and streams cutting through the surface and organic sand getting blown around. It’s still very active, just like it is here on Earth.”
And yet, the scientists have found evidence of water ice being exposed on Titan in the aftermath of meteor impacts.
The investigation was carried out by Western’s Institute for Earth and Space Exploration and collaborators from the European Space Agency (ESA).
The astronomers used data collected by the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) on NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.
The researchers wrote in their study: “The results show that the equatorial dune craters – Selk, Ksa, Guabonito, and the crater on Santorini Facula – appear to be purely composed of organic material (mainly unknown dark component).
“Titan’s midlatitude plain craters Afekan, Soi, and Forseti – along with Menrva and Sinlap, are enriched with water ice within an organic-based mixture.’
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The news is exciting because it implies ancient ecosystems could be exposed by these impact craters.
And the presence of water ice in these craters is critical because it is the best indicator of whether a planet may have had in the past or still has life on it.
NASA said: “Titan’s subsurface water could be a place to harbour life as we know it, while it surface lakes and seas of liquid hydrocarbons could conceivably harbour life that uses different chemistry than we’re used to – that is, life as we don’t know yet.”
Whatever the case may be, Dr Neish is involved in the launch of NASA’s Dragonfly mission to Titan in 2027.
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said: “With the Dragonfly mission, NASA will once again do what no one else can do.
And Dr Neish said: “I think more and more, we’re seeing a false equivalency between life and Mars.
“The recent findings about Venus and all the new things we’re learning about it once being an ocean world is another game-changer.
“Finally, people are saying, ‘In our search for life in the universe, we really need to focus on a lot more places, and not just Mars.’
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Titan, Earth, Saturn, Natural satellite, Atmosphere
World news – US – Life on Titan: Promising ingredient of life hides on Saturn’s biggest moon, study claims