News Flash: Life on Titan!

Filed under: neat!,news,physics @ 13:46

Everyone has no doubt heard of the Cassini Spacecraft launched in 1997 which last year began a series of flybys of Saturn’s moons. Well, on Christmas day, the Hyugens Probe was released from Cassini and began it’s mission: a closer inspection of the moon of Titan. While the Hyugens Mission is primarily an atmospheric one, it was designed to land on the surface (find it liquid or solid), and take some surface measurements and pictures.

January 14th, Hyugens descended into Titan’s atmosphere and it’s four hour data collection spree began. Four hours for two reasons: (1) the batteries wouldn’t last too much longer, and, more importantly (2) because Hyugens transmits to Cassini, not to Earth. And Cassini wasn’t stopping.

Well, as of 2am this morning, a lot of the data have been analyzed. Except for some awesome pictures, though, little has been released; wait until next week, say.

But, I can say that there is quite a high probability that there exitsts life on Titan.

Unfortunately, that life was brought there in the form of (now frozen) spores from Earth.

Complex lifeforms might die in vacuum or cold, but some little guys like bacteria, spores and viruses (of course, defining “life” becomes an issue) can survive even those extreme environments. To really sterilize something, you’ve got only a couple choices: harsh chemicals or high heat (grouping excessive radiation with heat). Only chemical breakdown will kill those representatives from Earth: small maybe, but doughty. Back in the good ol’ days, spacecraft and probes could be more easily sterilized using these methods. However, the instruments held in modern exploratory spacecraft are too delicate to withstand 300 °C baking or nasty, corroding chemical treatment. And clean rooms are only so clean (and have people in them…).

So: Life on Titan. Likewise on Mars.

Apparently there’s a group at NASA (and presumably at the European Space Agency and others) devoted to preventing contamination of the subjects of these scientific experiments. It doesn’t much matter for a moon like Titan, since the surface temperature is something like 100 K. But at the end of Galileo’s Juptiter exploration mission, the spacecraft was plunged into Jupiter to be crushed, melted and vaporized (give or take in that order) in order to prevent any possible contamination of Europa (where liquid water was discovered) or any other of Jupiter’s moons.

It brings to mind an amusing (and hopefully inaccurate) scenario: vaporized Galileo bits killing off an entire biosphere of ultra-high density Jovian life. The same fate may be in store for Cassini and the inhabitants of Saturn.

Now, you may say, “Life on Titan? Bah! There may be spores, but they’re permanently frozen and so incapable of reproduction. They’re not really alive but rather suspended.” Stuff it. I’ll be the only one arguing semantics here. And besides, how permanent is “permanent”? The universe is rather long lived.


    Paul.za 01.22.2005 @ 13:16

    You’ll no doubt be pleased to know that the … provocative title of this post had the desired effect — on me at least. I was sufficiently shocked to be simultaneously opening Google News and your site. I hope you’re pleased with what you’ve done!

    Your thoughts, however, remind me of the idea that some people have that life on, say, Earth could have come from spores on asteroids knocked out of Mars by larger collisions. I’ve always bee puzzled why these people seed the need to invoke life on Mars (not observed) and transfer of that life (not impossible, but not easy), in order to avoid postulating that life just evolved on Earth — warm, wet Earth.

    On the other hand, the idea that Earth might have been bombarded by complex organic molecules (though not life) from comets and such is more plausible, I suppose.

    MDA 01.22.2005 @ 13:24

    I think these Mars to Earth theories are based on the idea that Mars was warm and wet at some point in its history, and further that this Martian era occurred before Earth was able to support life (as we know it). Though I don’t know anything about Solar System History.

    But you’re right, it does seem more likely that life would evolve on Earth than be transplanted here. Unless the Life on Mars (or wherever) had an active space program, of course.

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