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The Search for Aliens through Chemistry: A deep look at Titan

Out of the 224 recorded moons in our solar system, none grab the attention of astro-chemists quite like Titan does. Titan is Saturn's largest moon, and its chemical make it unique for both scientists and alien fanatics. Titan is known to be filled with many organic chemicals, which makes some think that life similar to that found on earth could theoretically be there.

Criteria for life

Life doesn’t form on random planets, strict requirements are needed for any form of life to even start. These can be broken down into:

  • Chemicals needed for life - (aka biogenic elements)

  • Water

  • An energy source

  • Somewhat stable environment

Biogenic elements

Everything made out of stuff - even us and other living things. So anything living need these essential chemicals. Usually, the core biogenic elements are:

  • Carbon

  • Hydrogen

  • Oxygen

  • Nitrogen

  • Sulfur

  • Phosphurous

All of these have been found on Titan.

Organic Chemistry

The most abundant organic chemicals found on Titan are methane – rather in a gaseous form in the atmosphere or as a liquid on the surface, or in the sand on Titans dunes. This liquid methane is found on the surface, showing evidence of surface liquid, even if this isn't water. The sand dunes on Titan cover 13% of the surface, and are made up of many organic compounds, while scientists are still debating exactly what these chemicals are, the current prediction is that they are made up of tholins. Tholins are chemical compounds made up of carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen particles.

Titan's atmosphere

Titan not only is the only moon in our solar system with a atmosphere (one similar to earth's), but its atmosphere is 95% nitrogen - Earth's atmosphere is also nitrogen dense. The remaining 5% of Titan's atmosphere is methane, an organic compound, which on earth is formed of a byproduct of living organisms. It is this high quantity of methane that confuses scientists and excites alien believers.

Methane is made up of 1 carbon and 4 hydrogen. The issue with methane is that it is broken down by UV radiation from the sun. This makes methane making up nearly 5% of Titan's atmosphere so bizarre. If all this methane is being destroyed, there must be some new methane being replenished to make up for it, but where is it coming from? Methane often comes from rather the decaying of organic matter or specific micro-organisms. This would mean that if scientists did find life on Titan, a lot of their question regarding methane would be solved, but they have yet to find this evidence of life.

This process not only shows evidence for life, but also absorbs radiation from the sun, which can prevent high amounts of radiation on the surface on Titan, making it safe for humans.

The high amount of methane in both the atmosphere and the liquid on the surface makes some believe there is a sort of methane cycle occurring on Titan. This would be very similar to the earth's water cycle.

However, another theory has been put out there that this methane actually comes from volcanic activities.

Another compound found in Titan's atmosphere is cyclopropenylidene. An organic compound made up of 3 carbons and 2 hydrogens.

So aliens?

While there no evidence of life has been found on Titan, the chemicals similarities to earth would make it seem that maybe there could be life. One thing is for certain, whether there's life or not it certainly won't be any human-like civilizations, if that was the case they would have been long discovered. The question is if small micro-organisms are living on the surface of Titan.

It is so interesting that scientists are currently sending a probe to Titan as part of the dragonfly project.

If there's a planet so chemically similar to ours even within our own solar system - what‘s in the rest of the galaxy? Meaning that how likely are we to be really truly alone in this vast universe?

Whether that’s a comfort or not is up to you.

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