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Surprising Science

Saturn’s Moon Titan Could Host Life in New Methane Lakes

Tropical lakes of methane recently discovered on the surface of Titan hint at subsurface oases, which could produce compounds analogous to proteins and information-carrying molecules. 

What’s the Latest Development?

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has detected what may be lakes of liquid methane near the equatorial regions of Saturn’s moon Titan, which astronomers say would expand the potential for carbon-based life forms. Titan is known to have methane lakes at its poles but its midsection was previously considered a desert, where evaporation outpace precipitation. “Because tropical lakes on Titan should evaporate over a period of just a few thousand years, the researchers argue that these ponds and lakes are being replenished by subsurface oases of liquid methane.”

What’s the Big Idea?

“Besides Earth, Titan is the only solid object in the Solar System to circulate liquids in a cycle of rain and evaporation, although on Titan the process is driven by methane rather than water.” Composed of one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms, Titan’s methane stores could provide the necessary resources for organic chemical processes, “which could lead to compounds analogous to proteins and information-carrying molecules,” said astrobiologist Jonathan Lunine of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “There might be a kind of life that works in liquid hydrocarbons.”

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There is only one place in our solar system with stable liquid lakes and seas on its surface, besides planet Earth. Saturn’s moon Titan is this place. 

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