Exploring Whether Life On Titan Is Possible

Is it possible for life to thrive outside Earth? This is what scientists want to find out as they study the craters of Titan, the largest moon of Saturn and the second largest in the solar system. They are currently constructing a template that explores if a simple life form can survive its various environmental conditions.

Some scientists believe that Saturn’s moon may be able to support life since it is similar to how early Earth was. Just like how water cycles here on Earth, Titan’s dense atmosphere and other significant factors permit methane to undergo a cycle to a solid, liquid, and gas. Titan also possesses clouds and may have weather and pools of liquid, though not comprised of water, but methane. Thus, some scientist like to call it a ‘little planet’; if it orbited the Sun rather than Saturn, it might have even been considered an actual planet.

For years, scientists have been trying to find planets with such characteristics – ones that could potentially be inhabited by life forms. Liquid water is always the important factor considered in this pursuit. When a planet is too close to the Sun, water evaporates but when it is too far, it freezes. This is the major issue considered for Titan to become a ‘habitable zone.’ Its distance from the Sun makes its surface very, very cold. On February 27, 2015, however, a team of researchers from Cornell University, published a research article in Science Advances that discusses a new type of membrane, composed of small organic nitrogen compounds, that can adapt in liquid methane and very low temperatures.

The group suggests that the lipid membranes, which played a very important role in the formation of life on Earth, would need to be very different in a very cold environment, without oxygen present. Such membranes form from the ‘attraction between polar heads of short-chain molecules that are rich in nitrogen,’ compared to the how it occurs on Earth, where ‘long-chain nonpolar molecules’ form the experimental membrane in aqueous solution. They have called this membrane ‘azotosome.’ Azotosome was coined from the words azote and liposome; azote being the French word for nitrogen and liposome meaning lipid body. In other words, azotosome means “nitrogen body” with connection to it being a nitrogen-based cell composed of nitrogen, carbon, and hydrogen molecules.

The next job for the team is to find out whether azotosome can metabolize and reproduce on Titan. For this, they have to test the membrane in an environment closest to Titan and scientists think that Pitch Lake is the best location. Pitch Lake is located in the village of La Brea in Trinidad and is the biggest commercial deposit of natural asphalt in the world.