Is there life on Titan? Saturn’s moon may reveal how life first formed on Earth

Titan. Image: NASA/Getty.

How chemical reactions on a lifeless planet floating around in the cold darkness of space can suddenly give rise to living organisms is one of the biggest questions in science. We don’t even know whether the molecular building blocks of life on Earth were created here or whether they were brought here by comets and meteorites.

Using data from the NASA/ESA Cassini mission, we have now discovered molecules on Saturn’s largest moon Titan which we think drive the production of complex organic compounds. These are molecules that have never been seen in our solar system before. The discovery of such fascinating chemistry not only makes Titan a great contender for hosting some sort of primitive life, it also makes it the ideal place to study how life may have arisen from chemical reactions on our own planet.

The molecular building blocks of life are organic compounds including amino acids that can be assembled into proteins, RNA and DNA in living cells. To date, scientists have found these compounds in meteorites, comets and interstellar dust. But the problem is that these materials formed millions of years ago, which means we have no way of knowing how they were created.

Excitingly, it seems these compounds are being created on Titan today. Sunlight and energetic particles from Saturn’s magnetosphere drive reactions in the moon’s upper atmosphere, which is dominated by nitrogen, methane and hydrogen. These lead to larger organic compounds which drift downwards to form the moon’s characteristic “haze” and the extensive dunes – eventually reaching the surface.

The chemical reactions in Titan’s atmosphere. The carbon chain anions are in the green box. Image: ESA.

To make these surprising discoveries, published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, the Cassini spacecraft dipped through Titan’s upper atmosphere. Using data beamed back to Earth, we identified the presence of negatively charged molecules called “carbon chain anions”. These appear to “seed” the larger organic compounds observed at the moon – such as polyaromatic hydrocarbons and cyanopolynnes – which could serve as key ingredients for early forms of life. Laboratory experiments have also shown that amino acids could exist there, but the instruments on Cassini are not equipped to detect them.

Negatively charged molecules like these are rare in space environments as they want to react and combine with other molecules – meaning they can be quickly lost. When present, however, they appear to be a crucial “missing link” between simple molecules and complex organic compounds.

So could life currently exist on Titan? It’s not impossible. Water plumes erupting from another of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus, provides a key source of oxygen, which rains down onto Titan’s upper atmosphere. Titan has even been judged the most likely place beyond the Earth to host life by the Planetary habitability index. But life there would likely be quite primitive due to the cold conditions. The presence of liquid methane and ethane seas also means potential organisms would have to function quite differently to those on Earth.

Tracing life on Earth

Remarkably, similar processes are observed in vast molecular clouds beyond our solar system, where stars are born. After the first stars in the universe entered their death throes and fused together heavier elements, rich organic chemistry took place. In these environments, negatively charged molecules have been shown to act as a catalyst for the formation of larger organics, which could then be transferred to solar systems and comets forming from the cloud.

Complex interstellar chemistry has led to the theory that the building blocks of life could have been delivered to Earth from comets which once formed in these molecular clouds. ESA’s Rosetta mission detected the amino acid glycine when visiting Comet 67P/Churymov-Gerasimenko. However, the new discovery makes it entirely possible that similar processes of creating complex organics, and thus life, took place on Earth instead.

Haze in Titan’s atmosphere. Image: Wikimedia commons.

Titan’s dense nitrogen and methane atmosphere is similar to the early Earth’s, some 2.5-4bn years ago. At this time, before the build-up of oxygen occurred, large quantities of methane resulted in organic chemistry similar to that observed at Titan today. The moon is therefore a high priority target in the search for the beginnings of life.

By making long-term, detailed observations of Titan, we may one day be able to trace the journey from small to large chemical species in order to understand how complex organic molecules are produced. Perhaps we may even be able catch the sudden change from complex organic molecules to living organisms. Follow-up observations of Titan’s atmosphere are already underway using powerful ground-based telescopes such as ALMA. Further missions to explore Titan are also in the works – it is crucial that these are equipped to detect the signatures of life.

Universal driver

The fact that we now see the same chemistry occurring at Titan as in molecular clouds is fascinating, as it indicates the universal nature of these processes. The question now is, could this also be happening within other atmospheres rich in nitrogen and methane, such as at Pluto or Neptune’s moon Triton? What about the thousands of exoplanets discovered in recent years, circling nearby stars?

Radar images reveal lakes on Titan’s surface. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/USGS.

The concept of a universal pathway towards the building blocks of life has implications for what we need to look for in the onward search for life in the universe. If we detect the molecules just seen on Titan in another environment, we would know that much larger organics and therefore amino acids could possibly exist there.

Future missions, such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope and ESA’s exoplanet mission Plato, are set to further study these processes within our solar system and at planets orbiting nearby stars. The UK is even planning its own exoplanet mission, Twinkle, which will also search for signatures of organic molecules.

The ConversationAlthough we haven’t detected life itself, the presence of complex organic molecules at Titan, comets and within the interstellar medium means we are certainly coming close to finding its beginnings. And it’s all thanks to Cassini’s near 20-year exploratory journey. So spare a thought for this magnificent spacecraft as it ends its mission in September with a final death-plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere.

Ravi Desai is a PhD candidate in physics at UCL.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.


Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

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