Recent results from the Cassini mission suggest that hydrogen and acetylene are depleted at the surface of Titan. Both results are still preliminary and the hydrogen loss in particular is the result of a computer calculation, and not a direct measurement. However the findings are interesting for astrobiology. Heather Smith and I, in a paper published 5 years ago (McKay and Smith, 2005) suggested that methane-based (rather than water-based) life – ie, organisms called methanogens — on Titan could consume hydrogen, acetylene, and ethane. The key conclusion of that paper (last line of the abstract) was “The results of the recent Huygens probe could indicate the presence of such life by anomalous depletions of acetylene and ethane as well as hydrogen at the surface.”
Now there seems to be evidence for all three of these on Titan. Clark et al. (2010, in press in JGR) are reporting depletions of acetylene at the surface. And it has been long appreciated that there is not as much ethane as expected on the surface of Titan. And now Strobel (2010, in press in Icarus) predicts a strong flux of hydrogen into the surface.
This is a still a long way from “evidence of life”. However, it is extremely interesting.
Andrew Moseman at Discover:
If there were life on the Saturnian moon of Titan, the thinking goes, it would have to inhabit pools of methane or ethane at a cool -300 degrees Fahrenheit, and without the aid of water. While scientists don’t know just what that life would look like, they can predict what effects such tiny microbes would have on Titan’s atmosphere. That’s why researchers from the Cassini mission are excited now: They’ve found signatures that match those expectations. It’s far from proof of life on Titan, but it leaves the door wide open to the possibility.In 2005, NASA’s Chris McKay put forth a possible scenario for life there: Critters could breathe the hydrogen gas that’s abundant on Titan, and consume a hydrocarbon called acetylene for energy. The first of two studies out recently, published in the journal Icarus, found that something—maybe life, but maybe something else—is using up the hydrogen that descends from Titan’s atmosphere to its surface:
“It’s as if you have a hose and you’re squirting hydrogen onto the ground, but it’s disappearing,” says Darrell Strobel, a Cassini interdisciplinary scientist based at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., who authored a paper published in the journal Icarus [Popular Science].
Erring on the side of caution, the scientists suggest that life is but one explanation for this chemical oddity. Perhaps some unknown mineral on Titan acts as a catalyst to speed up the reaction of hydrogen and carbon to form methane, and that’s what accounts for the vanishing hydrogen. (Normally, the two wouldn’t combine fast enough under the cold conditions on Titan to account for the anomaly.) That would be pretty cool, though not as much of a jolt as Titanic life.
Nancy Atkinson at Universe Today:
Two papers released last week detailing oddities found on Titan have blown the top off the ‘jumping to conclusions’ meter, and following media reports of NASA finding alien life on Saturn‘s hazy moon, scientists are now trying to put a little reality back into the news. “Everyone: Calm down!” said Cassini imaging team leader Carolyn Porco on Twitter over the weekend. “It is by NO means certain that microbes are eating hydrogen on Titan. Non-bio explanations are still possible.” Porco also put out a statement on Monday saying such reports were “the unfortunate result of a knee-jerk rush to sensationalize an exciting but rather complex, nuanced and emotionally-charged issue.”
McKay suggests everyone needs to take the Occam’s Razor approach, where the simplest theory that fits the facts of a problem is the one that should be selected.
The two papers suggest that hydrogen and acetylene are being depleted at the surface of Titan. The first paper by Darrell Strobel shows hydrogen molecules flowing down through Titan’s atmosphere and disappearing at the surface. This is a disparity between the hydrogen densities that flow down to the surface at a rate of about 10,000 trillion trillion hydrogen molecules per second, but none showing up at the surface.
“It’s as if you have a hose and you’re squirting hydrogen onto the ground, but it’s disappearing,” Strobel said. “I didn’t expect this result, because molecular hydrogen is extremely chemically inert in the atmosphere, very light and buoyant. It should ‘float’ to the top of the atmosphere and escape.”
The other paper (link not yet available) led by Roger Clark, a Cassini team scientist, maps hydrocarbons on Titan’s surface and finds a surprising lack of acetylene. Models of Titan’s upper atmosphere suggest a high level of acetylene in Titan’s lakes, as high as 1 percent by volume. But this study, using the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) aboard Cassini, found very little acetylene on Titan’s surface.
Of course, one explanation for both discoveries is that something on Titan is consuming the hydrogen and acetylene.
Even though both findings are important, McKay feels the crux of any possible life on Titan hinges on verifying Strobel’s discovery about the lack of hydrogen.
“To me, the whole thing hovers on this determination of whether there is this flux of hydrogen is real,” McKay said via phone. “The acetylene has been missing and the ethane has been missing, but that certainly doesn’t generate a lot of excitement, because how much is supposed to be there depends on how much is being made. There are a lot of uncertainties.”
Phil Plait at Discover:
Titan is a monster, the second biggest moon in the solar system at 5150 km (3200 miles) in diameter. If it weren’t orbiting Saturn, it would probably be considered a planet in its own right: it’s bigger than Mercury and Pluto. It has a thick atmosphere, made up of nitrogen, methane, and other molecules. It’s very cold, but it’s known that lakes, probably of liquid methane, exist on the surface.
Five years ago, McKay and other scientists pointed out that if methane-based life existed on Titan, it might be detectable through a surface depletion of ethane, hydrogen, and acetylene. New observations show that this is the case; there are lower amounts of these substances than the chemistry of Titan would indicate.
As McKay points out, “This is a still a long way from ‘evidence of life’. However, it is extremely interesting.”
Those are the basics. Go read McKay’s article for details. The point he makes is that the results are preliminary, may yet turn out to be wrong, if they’re right may have non-biological explanations, and we should not conclude biology is involved until we get a lot more evidence.
As far as the media goes, headlines get eyeballs and sell advertisements, of course. But in cases where the news is like this, news outlets should be particularly careful how they phrase things. They know how the public will react to certain phrases, and the phrase “evidence of life” is substantially less accurate and more likely to incite chatter than “evidence for possible life” — and the Telegraph’s technically accurate but seriously misleading “evidence ‘that alien life exists on Saturn’s moon’” is just asking for trouble.
The point is, when it comes to media outlets and big news like this, the phrase going through your head should be a variant of an old one, updated for this modern age:
“Don’t trust, and verify”.
John Matson at Scientific American
Maggie Koerth-Baker at Boing Boing:
This is the kind of research that easily sets hearts aflutter and space nerds to making high-pitched happy squealing sounds, so let’s knock out one basic thing right off the bat: Nobody has discovered alien life. We have not found E.T. This is only a test of the emergency high-pitched happy squealing system.
That said, it probably wouldn’t be remiss to clap your hands delightedly, like a little girl. As I said, nobody has found alien life, but they did find the sort of evidence that might suggest alien life is down there on the surface of Titan, waiting to be found. It’s a little like walking up to a house and finding the front door open, and, inside, a T.V. stand that’s missing a T.V. It’s reasonable to assume the house might have been burglarized, but there are also other plausible explanations and you don’t have enough evidence to know one way or the other.