What Is Consuming Hydrogen and Acetylene on Titan?

Two new papers based on data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft scrutinize the complex chemical activity on the surface of Saturn's moon Titan. While non-biological chemistry offers one possible explanation, some scientists believe these chemical signatures bolster the argument for a primitive, exotic form of life or precursor to life on Titan's surface. According to one theory put forth by astrobiologists, the signatures fulfill two important conditions necessary for a hypothesized "methane-based life."

One key finding comes from a paper online now in the journal Icarus that shows hydrogen molecules flowing down through Titan's atmosphere and disappearing at the surface. Another paper online now in the Journal of Geophysical Research maps hydrocarbons on the Titan surface and finds a lack of acetylene.

This lack of acetylene is important because that chemical would likely be the best energy source for a methane-based life on Titan, said Chris McKay, an astrobiologist at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., who proposed a set of conditions necessary for this kind of methane-based life on Titan in 2005. One interpretation of the acetylene data is that the hydrocarbon is being consumed as food. But McKay said the flow of hydrogen is even more critical because all of their proposed mechanisms involved the consumption of hydrogen.

"We suggested hydrogen consumption because it's the obvious gas for life to consume on Titan, similar to the way we consume oxygen on Earth," McKay said. "If these signs do turn out to be a sign of life, it would be doubly exciting because it would represent a second form of life independent from water-based life on Earth."

To date, methane-based life forms are only hypothetical. Scientists have not yet detected this form of life anywhere, though there are liquid-water-based microbes on Earth that thrive on methane or produce it as a waste product. On Titan, where temperatures are around 90 Kelvin (minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit), a methane-based organism would have to use a substance that is liquid as its medium for living processes, but not water itself. Water is frozen solid on Titan's surface and much too cold to support life as we know it.

The list of liquid candidates is very short: liquid methane and related molecules like ethane. While liquid water is widely regarded as necessary for life, there has been extensive speculation published in the scientific literature that this is not a strict requirement.

The new hydrogen findings are consistent with conditions that could produce an exotic, methane-based life form, but do not definitively prove its existence, said Darrell Strobel, a Cassini interdisciplinary scientist based at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., who authored the paper on hydrogen.

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