A new study suggests the recipe is different but Saturn’s moon Titan has the necessary ingredients for life. Scientists used advanced imaging technology.
Recently, Catherine Neish, a member of Western’s Institute for Earth and Space Exploration (Western Space), together with her colleagues at the European Space Agency (ESA) investigated Titan using advanced imaging technology.
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Neish is playing a key role in an international mission—dispatching a robotic drone to Saturn’s moon Titan—set to blast-off in 2027.
Titan may be a way more interesting world than Mars. At least biologically.
Saturn’s moon is the most volcanically active world in the solar system. It is the only planetary body around the sun, besides Earth, with a dense atmosphere that is rich in nitrogen and carbon. Windblown dunes wriggle over its surface while mountains, hills, and canyons cover the landscape.
Just like on Earth, rain falls from the skies of Titan creating rivers and streams that feed lakes and seas. There, organic compounds could undergo complex chemical reactions to form the so-called “primordial soup” from which life on Earth first sprang.
Tiny amounts of vapor rise from the land back to the sky to create new clouds and fresh showers. This cycle mirrors that of Earth’s.
Recently, Neish and her collaborators discovered that newly-formed impact craters on Saturn’s largest moon expose relatively fresh ‘water ice’ from Titan’s icy crust.
On Titan, atmospheric processes cover the ice under a layer of sand-like organic material. On dry equatorial regions, the sand piles up; but at higher, wetter latitudes, surface streams erode the sand away.
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For scientists, it’s so difficult to assess what lies beneath Titan’s thick atmosphere. However, ESA’s multimillion-dollar Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer can penetrate that hazy atmosphere by collecting both light visible to humans and infrared light of slightly longer wavelengths.
“It’s wild. There’s no other place like Titan in the solar system. There’s more sand on Titan per area than anywhere else,” said Neish.
“And 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,” added Neish.
Scientists suggest these findings could help them in discovering ancient ecosystems frozen in the bottoms of impact craters. They will also prove beneficial when preparing data analysis and monitoring techniques for the forthcoming Dragonfly drone mission to Titan.
Despite the Red Planet being the prime destination for NASA, Neish is confident that the global space sector is ready to search for life beyond Mars.
“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,” said Neish.
“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.’ And that includes NASA sending the Dragonfly mission to Titan.”