The Possibility of Vinyl Cyanide Based Life on Saturns Moon Titan
The Launch of a duadcopter “Dragonfly” drone to explore Titan in 2025 has been selected by NASA to receive funding. Back in July 2017 scientists discovered the spectrographic signature for vinyl cyanide, an ingredient that could potentially form life in Titans otherwise poisonous atmosphere.
Before now many alternate forms of life on titan have been proposed
The “Azotosome” was a theoretical cell structure based on methane that has been adapted to the new findings. It is believed the same structure would work with Vinyl Cyanide as well.
The main difference between Earth and Titans atmosphere is the amount of Nitrogen.
Whereas earths atmosphere is 78% Nitrogen, Titan is 98% Nitrogen and therefore has much less oxygen/water as a result. instead Titans atmosphere is Composed of mostly Nitrogen Methane and Hydrogen.
Molecular modelling studies showed that vinyl cyanide – a combination of all three of these in a particular order was most likely to form life given Titans characteristic set of melting and freezing points.
The proposed organism is similar to bacteria or even coral reefs in it’s ability to create winding membranes.. Scientists say they could potentially exist at the bottom of Ligei Mare – a giant sea of liquid methane used for their calculations. A truly alien form of life considering the seas frigid temperature of -179 degrees celsius in the summer time! A quote from the research reads.
“The corresponding production rate of vinyl cyanide and its saturation mole fraction imply the availability of sufficient dissolved material to form ~107 cell membranes/cm3 in Titan’s sea Ligeia Mare.” (1)
The discoveries were made using the ALMA telescope in Chile.
Left: Titans sea Ligeia Mare
named after one of the Sirens in Greek mythology
Right: Lake Superior
Photo credit Jet Propulsion Laboratory California Institute of Technology
A proposed exploration project that uses quadcopter drone will zip through rocky channels carved by aeons of winding liquid methane in search of potential locations for colonisation and possible signs of life. To Earthlings, methane is a waste gas, and temperatures as cold as Titan are often relegated to industrial grade freezers and yet it is the only moon in our solar system with a stable atmosphere. Therefor, a primary
Terrestrial organisms are composed of mostly water, carbon and nitrogen so below -20 degrees Celsius almost all forms of life as we know it freeze in to a glass like state and vitrify. Aside from the tardigrade which is a unique and exceptional example of what life is capable of given the right selection pressure.
The bottom line is that all elements have a different melting, freezing and boiling point. So based on Earths distance away from the sun and every atoms distance away from the equator temperatures change and the space between each atom expands and contracts to a symphony of elemental presets.
This makes it so that carbon and water are for the most part destined to remain within a certain range of states here on Earth. However notice how life takes form through all states of matter. We ingest and expel both solids liquid gas and even plasma in order to heal grow and breed.
Many theories of organic entropy contest that instead of defining life as solely “organic” chemistry within a certain temperature range” we define it as a whirlpool of complexity and order with emergent features.
There is an argument to be made that the only reason life is composed of carbon and water is because these elements are more prolific on Earth. There’s no reason for example why complex protein structures shouldn’t be capable of forging entirely separate evolutionary timelines based on Titans unique temperature range and elemental composition.
For example , Acrylonitrile, another word for Vinyl Cyanide has a melting point of – 84 degrees celsius – So where it would be a colourless volatile liquid on Earth it is a solid on Titan, allowing for the potential development of solid molecular scaffolds.
Just like any other celestial body there are also various spin and wobbles that would effect life on Titan as well. As Saturn tugs on Titan from further and closer away, a cycle called eccentricity creates a kilometre long tide similar to ours on Earth. This kind of sloshing around may be what the sea of hydrocarbons needed to catalyse life in it’s primordial past.
“The Titan” A Netflix film explores the possibility of genetically modifying a human being to live on a vastly different alien world. Though we may not need to go that far to colonize Titan. It is interesting, and I would recommend the film to anyone looking for an entertaining introduction to the concept of evolving life under extreme conditions.
Feature image photo credit NASA