Monday, June 7, 2010

Life on Titan! Or, Not

"Strange Discovery on Titan Leads to Speculation of Alien Life " (June 7, 2010)

"New findings have roused a great deal of hoopla over the possibility of life on Saturn's moon Titan, which some news reports have further hyped up as hints of extraterrestrials.

"However, scientists also caution that aliens might have nothing to do with these findings.

"All this excitement is rooted in analyses of chemical data returned by NASA's Cassini spacecraft. One study suggested that hydrogen was flowing down through Titan's atmosphere and disappearing at the surface. Astrobiologist Chris McKay at NASA Ames Research Center speculated this could be a tantalizing hint that hydrogen is getting consumed by life.

" 'It's the obvious gas for life to consume on Titan, similar to the way we consume oxygen on Earth,' McKay said.

"Another study investigating hydrocarbons on Titan's surface found a lack of acetylene, a compound that could be consumed as food by life that relies on liquid methane instead of liquid water to live...."

Or, there could be chemistry and/or physics happening on Titan that isn't biological, isn't living.

We just don't know. Yet.

One thing the scientists expected to find was acetylene on the surface. They didn't. That could mean that there are acetylene-eating critters on Titan - or radiation is converting acetylene in the atmosphere into compounds that don't show up on instruments (or haven't been linked to the acetylene dearth) - or something else is going on.

Whatever is going on: there's a lot more to learn about that moon of Saturn's.

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