NASA Finds Alien Molecule on Titan Never Before Observed in an Atmosphere 

Astronomers have found a strange molecule in the atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan that has never been detected in any other atmosphere. The molecule, called cyclopropenylidene is a simple carbon-based molecule that is likely precursor to more complex compounds that could form or feed possible alien life on Titan.

Of all the places in the solar system where life is likely, Mars is number one on the list. However, that doesn’t mean life can only exist there; throughout the years, scientists have proposed that life as we know it could potentially exist not only on Mars but on planets such as Venus as well. Life can also develop on some of the moons in our solar system, and the atmosphere of Titan—one of Saturn’s moons—could be an excellent place to look for it.

Recently, this seems more likely as scientists have reported finding a molecule in the atmosphere of Titan that is as alien as it gets; in fact, scientists say that it has never been found in any other atmosphere. Furthermore, many experts in the field have likely never heard of it before; cyclopropenylidene, or C3H2.

This hard-to-pronounce word is, in fact, a simple carbon-based molecule that may be a precursor to much more complex compounds that could form or feed alien life on Titan, NASA has revealed.

The odd alien molecule was discovered by scientists using ALMA, a radio telescope observatory that allows scientists not only to explore the solar system but the universe in general. The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array is the largest radio telescope in the world and allows astronomers to study, among other things, the earliest and furthest galaxies in our Universe.

This is the first global geologic map of Saturn's largest moon, Titan. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU.
This is the first global geologic map of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU.

Scientists were analyzing the atmosphere of Titan as they were sifting through the spectrum of unique light signatures that were collected by the telescope. Among these, they noticed a molecule made of carbon and hydrogen.

Discovering cyclopropenylidene in the universe is not a big deal, in fact, it has been discovered in pockets throughout the galaxy; in clouds of gas that are located between stars. However, discovering it in an atmosphere is unprecedented, which is why the discovery took experts by surprise.

Conor Nixon, who lead the ALMA search, explained the excitement. “When I realized I was looking at cyclopropenylidene, my first thought was, well, this is really unexpected,” the researcher revealed.

The discovery of the molecule is both surprising and exciting as scientists have revealed that cyclopropenylidene can react easily with other molecules enabling it to form different species. Although interstellar space is too cold and diffuse to facilitate chemical reactions, the environment within the atmosphere of Titan is the exact opposite; the dense atmosphere of the second-largest moon in our solar system facilitates chemical activity.

This makes Titan an even more interesting moon to study, and the reason why NASA’s upcoming Dragonfly mission will sniff through the atmosphere of the alien moon in order to help us better understand it, and gather data that could help solve the mystery behind potential life on Titan.

The reason why scientists are so interested in Titan is because of its similarities to Earth. Although Titan’s atmosphere is far denser than that of Earth, the alien moon has clouds, rain, lakes, rivers, and even subsurface oceans of saltwater; in other words, Titan could be one of the most intriguing places of the entire solar system where life could have developed.

The study describing the discovery of cyclopropenylidene within Titan’s atmosphere was published in the Astronomical Journal.


Source and reference: NASA / The Astronomical Journal / https://doi.org/10.3847/1538-3881/abb679

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