The icebergs of Titan: Astronomers say hydrocarbon blocks could contain ‘exotic form of life’
Researchers believe the lakes and seas could contain life due to their unique chemistry
Believe ice could be colourless, but appear reddish-brown due to Titan’s atmosphere
Saturn’s moon Titan is home to lakes of massive hydrocarbon ‘icebergs’ that could form exotic forms of life, scientists have claimed.
Nasa researchers say the new theory may also explain bizarre reading from the vast lakes and seas on the moon.
‘One of the most intriguing questions about these lakes and seas is whether they might host an exotic form of life,’ said Jonathan Lunine of Cornell University, who co-authored the study.
Titan is the only other body besides Earth in our solar system with stable bodies of liquid on its surface.
However, while our planet’s cycle of precipitation and evaporation involves water, Titan’s cycle involves hydrocarbons like ethane and methane.
Ethane and methane are organic molecules, which scientists think can be building blocks for the more complex chemistry from which life arose.
Cassini has seen a vast network of these hydrocarbon seas cover Titan’s northern hemisphere, while a more sporadic set of lakes bejewels the southern hemisphere.
Cassini scientists assumed that Titan lakes would not have floating ice, because solid methane is denser than liquid methane and would sink.
But the new model, revealed today, considers the interaction between the lakes and the atmosphere, resulting in different mixtures of compositions, pockets of nitrogen gas, and changes in temperature.
The result, scientists found, is that winter ice will float in Titan’s methane-and-ethane-rich lakes and seas if the temperature is below the freezing point of methane — minus 297 degrees Fahrenheit (90.4 Kelvins).
‘We now know it’s possible to get methane-and-ethane-rich ice freezing over on Titan in thin blocks that congeal together as it gets colder — similar to what we see with Arctic sea ice at the onset of winter,’ said Jason Hofgartner, first author on the paper and a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada scholar at Cornell.
‘We’ll want to take these conditions into consideration if we ever decide to explore the Titan surface some day.’