We’ve been looking for alien life for quite a while, pretty much as soon as we discovered outer space. But while the headlines you’ve seen about life on Saturn’s moon, Titan, are a bit misleading, the discovery they’re talking about is enormously exciting.
Why would we even care about a moon anyway?
Titan is the only moon where we’ve seen both pools of liquid and a dense atmosphere. You might recognize those as two prerequisites to have some form of life, so Titan’s kind of a big deal.
Holy crap, is it like Earth?
Sort of! It has a climate, mountains, dunes, seasons, all sorts of stuff we’d recognize. It even has lakes! Now, admittedly, these are lakes of hydrocarbons, and instead of a water cycle, Titan has a methane cycle. So we can’t exactly move there.
Methane falls from the skies? Wouldn’t that mean Titan is cold?
Freezing! -325° Fahrenheit, in fact. No life on Earth could survive that, although the lack of oxygen would probably get you before the freezing does.
Why all the headlines about life on Titan?
Because thanks to discovering a new property of a chemical found in its atmosphere, life might exist. Specifically, acrylonitrile can organize itself into a structure with the same characteristic of a cell membrane. It can be a potential home for types of life.
I’m sensing that there’s a “But…” coming.
Indeed: This is a new discovery, and furthermore, it was done with a computer simulation, so while it may work in theory, it may not work in practice. Even if it does work, we’ve got no guarantee that they’ll form on Titan, and if they do form on Titan, whether cellular life can take advantage of it.
Why the big deal?
Well, this offers a workable theory for a completely new form of life, one completely separate from our conception of it. That’s enormous. It also gives us the conception of how to work out how life might theoretically form on planets that have atmospheres and conditions nothing like Earth, meaning we could be able to spot a planet, figure out its chemical composition, and work out its potential for life from a distance.
Will we be able to confirm there’s life on Titan, or at least the potential for it?
Not for a while. The window for launching a craft to Titan is too tight, and it’d be more expensive than your usual space mission for a few reasons, so we won’t be going back to Titan for several decades… but with this discovery, it’s likely we will be going back.