Despite the fact that its surface features mountains, lakes, islands and possible even flowing rivers, Titan is very different to Earth. For one it is freezing, and although its lakes may look familiar, they are in fact made of methane and other hydrocarbons, writes Eric Mack for Forbes.
Methane-based life on Titan?
Titan is in fact an incredibly harsh environment in which life as we know it could simply not exist. However a team of researchers from Cornell University have combined their science knowledge with a bit of creativity to imagine what kind of alien life could possibly live on Titan.
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In a paper published in the latest issue of Science Advances, the team theorized that Titan could be home to methane-based, oxygen-free cells. They then invented a cell membrane that consists of nitrogen compounds capable of functioning in liquid methane at very low temperatures. Cells based on methane rather than water have a much lower freezing point, and if life based on such cells were possible it would mean that life could exist in previously unthinkable regions of our solar system.
Future research mission
The researchers have named their methane cell with a nitrogen-based membrane an “azotosome,” inspired by the French word for nitrogen, azote. They were surprised to find that it had the same stability and flexibility as a liposome, the water-based membrane found in terrestrial organic cells.
The next stage of the research is to see how well they function in a methane-based environment. The team has lofty goals for eventual applications of its research, with study co-author Jonathan Lunine already imagining “someday sending a probe to float on the seas of this amazing moon (Titan) and directly sampling the organics.”
As a matter of fact, NASA already has plans for such a mission. The space agency hopes to send a submarine to explore the vast lakes of Titan, an endeavor which could perhaps reveal signs of life.