October 30, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

FrankenTitan Comes to Life

There’s electricity at Titan, the large moon of Saturn.  That can only mean one thing: life!  “Electricity Found on Saturn Moon–Could It Spark Life?” asked a headline on National Geographic News by Rebecca Carroll.  Visions of spark discharge tubes in a mad scientist’s lab arise in the imagination.  “Recently identified electrical activity on Saturn’s largest moon bolsters arguments that Titan is the kind of place that could harbor life.”
    Carroll quickly pointed out that at -350° F, any Titanian life would not resemble “life as we know it.”  Initial indications of electrical activity in the thick atmosphere of this unusual moon have been confirmed in data from the Huygens Probe that landed in 2005 (see 01/15/2005, 01/21/2005).  With that spark of imagination, the L-word leaped up from the reporter’s table:

But a new study reports faint signs of a natural electric field in Titan’s thick cloud cover that are similar to the energy radiated by lightning on Earth.
    Lightning is thought to have sparked the chemical reactions that led to the origin of life on our planet….
    Jeffrey Bada, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, believes the process that allowed lightning to spark life on Earth is universal and could happen in many environments—including on Titan.
    Confirmation earlier this year of Titan’s hydrocarbon lakes makes the Saturnian moon the first place other than Earth where open bodies of liquid have been found.
    Hydrocarbons are organic molecules, and the fact that they exist in large quantities on Titan suggests that life could take root there under the right conditions.

Alas, the water required for life is locked up in rock-hard ice.  The “precursor molecules” formed by lightning acting on hydrocarbons could go no further without water, Bada said.  But then – perhaps the ice could melt under certain circumstances.  Maybe a meteor impact would melt the ice long enough for interesting things to happen.

Titan’s water is currently frozen into chunks as hard as granite.  If those ice “rocks” were to melt, however, the environment could become more hospitable to the building blocks of life.
    With liquid water, the planet could host the formation of amino acids and then full proteins, which drive all biochemistry and set the stage for more complex molecules.
    “I look at Titan as a big, frozen, prebiotic casserole,” Bada said, referring to the state before the emergence of life.
    “The idea that life could be widespread in the universe, I think, is very credible.”

Juan Antonio Morente of the University of Granada in Spain, the lead author of the study, seemed less enthusiastic about the possibility of life on Titan.  He said that Titan is exposed to deadly cosmic rays because it lacks a stable magnetic field.  “Without stable protection from radiation, Morente said, ‘the existence of life is very unlikely.’”
    In all, Carroll used the L-word life 11 times in her short 585-word article.  It seems strange Carroll would focus on life now when discussing Morente’s paper.  For one thing, it’s not news; the paper was published in June.1  And the team never used the L-word in the paper.  Apparently Jeffrey Bada,2 a well-known origin-of-life researcher at Scripps, “who was not involved with Morente’s study,” made the statements about electricity, hydrocarbons and life recently – or maybe Carroll was looking for a story with a tie-in to Frankenstein right before Halloween.


1.  Morente, Porti, Salinas and Navarro, “Evidence of electrical activity on Titan drawn from the Schumann resonances sent by Huygens probe,” Icarus, Volume 195, Issue 2, June 2008, pages 802-811, doi:10.1016/j.icarus.2008.02.004.  The only statement in the paper that comes close to the idea of life on Titan is in the first paragraph: “Lightning activity would considerably increase the probability of organic and pre-biotic molecules being formed.”
2.  Jeffrey Bada was part of another Halloween prank last week: see the 10/20/2008 entry.

Creepy.  To learn about the real Frankenstein, listen to this podcast.  Truth is stranger than fiction.

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