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.

 
 
 
 

How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 


CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.