Titan is the largest moon of Saturn. It is also the only moon in the solar system to have an atmosphere. Even though Earth and Titan are separated by a distance of about 1.4 billion kilometers, these two worlds share many common characteristics:
Earth has liquid oceans, so do Titan.
Earth has flowing rivers and stagnant lakes, Titan have them too.
It rains on Earth and it does rain on Titan.
Oceans, rivers, lakes and rain. These are all things previously taught as to be exclusive to Earth. However, the exploration of some of the alien worlds here inside our solar system has proved that it is not always the case. There are many worlds out there having all these features. One such world is Titan (we discuss in detail about all these places on our new book: The Worlds Unknown click here to view). Titan has oceans, rivers and lakes of flowing liquid but with only one difference, it’s not water but instead its liquid methane and ethane that flows through the moon’s rivers and fills its oceans and lakes.
When the Cassini Spacecraft approached Titan on 24 Jan 2004, it deployed the Huygens lander, which slid through the moon’s thick atmosphere that is composed of mostly methane and nitrogen. It was followed by a soft landing using parachutes to decelerate the falling probe. First Huygens landed of a relatively soft surface. The surface of Titan is not too hard, if we are standing there, we will start to sink if we apply more pressure on our feet. During the initial impact, Huygens dug a hole about 12 centimeters long before bouncing off to a much harder surface. it was a landscape much similar to a lake-bed here on Earth. Huygens clicked the first images from the surface and relayed it to Cassini, which was then sent back to Earth.
Huygens is the only probe ever to land softly on the surface of a moon in the outer solar system. However, it did not have a long battery life. The mission lasted only a few hours on Titan’s surface. Now the probe sits on Titan’s surface, silent, dead and frozen solid.
Even though Titan has no water or desired temperature conditions many scientists still believe that there would be life on Titan because it is not always necessary that life should take the form that we are most familiar with (i.e. the carbon based form which uses water as a solvent as here on Earth).
In 2005 astrobiologist, Chris McKay of NASA‘s Ames Research Center published a paper along with Heather Smith of the International Space University in Strasbourg in which they describe how methane-based life forms on Titan (‘methanogens’) could consume hydrogen, acetylene and ethane and exhale methane instead of carbon dioxide. They also mentioned that if such a life form ever existed, it could reveal itself through a depletion of hydrogen acetylene and ethane on the surface. Amazingly, this depletion was observed on Titan but scientists including McKay himself are dubious that some other unknown physical process on the moon might be causing it.
The most important realization here is not whether or not there is life on Titan but that we don’t still completely know how life might evolve. It does not always to be in the form that we are familiar with, at the beginning some scientists and science fiction writers alike pictured Titan as a place much similar to Earth and having bugs swimming in the methane lakes.
We don’t know until another follow up mission proves or disproves these mysterious speculations.
If you wish to read more about such interesting worlds which might host the magic of life, go forward and check out our book ‘The Worlds Unknown: Places Where Life Might Find A Way’ (click here to view).