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NASA Scientists Discover 'Weird' Molecule in Saturn's Moon Titan’s Atmosphere. Is it a Sign of Life?

File image of Saturn.  REUTERS/ NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI.

File image of Saturn. REUTERS/ NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI.

The unexpected development, as the scientists called the discovery, is a first of its kind. No such compound has ever been discovered in either the Earth’s or any other planet’s atmosphere.

How can you identify a molecule that’s never been identified in any known atmosphere and many scientists may not even know its name?

Well, NASA can and has. A new molecule known as cyclopropenylidene (C3H2) has been spotted in the atmosphere of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. NASA claims this is significant as it can not only hint at the presence of extraordinary organic chemistry of the moon but also could feed or form life.

The unexpected development, as the scientists called the discovery, is a first of its kind. No such compound has ever been discovered in either the Earth’s or any other planet’s atmosphere. The discovery was made using a radio telescope observatory in northern Chile known as the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimeter Array (ALMA). Since it is carbon-based, scientists guess it could either be proof of life in the past or in the future of the celestial body. Life on earth is also carbon-based.

While found in an atmosphere for the first time, C3H2 has been known to astro-scientists for some time. The gas is mostly present, scattered throughout the galaxy, in pockets of dust and gas clouds that float between star systems. These are too cold to allow for any chemical reaction. However, Titan’s atmosphere is dense and allow chemical activity.

Also Read: Lakes and Labyrinths: NASA Reveals First Geological Map of Saturn’s Planet-sized Moon 'Titan'

According to NASA, the cyclopropenylidene is slightly volatile as it can readily react with a number of other molecules in the type of atmosphere present on Titan. These developments have increased scientific curiosity toward this moon. The discovery was made by Conor Nixon, a planetary scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Nixon and his team were looking at the moon’s upper atmosphere where the chances of reaction are less; fewer gases present with which C3H2 could react. The research was published in the Astronomical Journal.

“Titan is unique in our solar system. It has proved to be a treasure trove of new molecules,” said Nixon. Titan bears a similarity to our home, Earth. There are clouds, which cause rain, which then form lakes and rivers, and a subsurface ocean of salty water. However, its atmosphere is vastly different than us and at least four times denser. NASA’s future mission, Dragonfly, will be headed for Titan. This discovery might add another mission to its checklist – look for signs of life.


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