They’ve found evidence of a chemical called acrylonitrile that could be used to create cell membranes capable of surviving in Titan’s hostile atmosphere.
The significance of this is huge. Titan’s atmosphere is vastly different to our own, which means that if life were to exist it certainly wouldn’t have the same biological recipe that makes up life here on Earth.
Instead scientists have been looking for other chemicals to make up the building blocks and in this case, acrylonitrile is flexible enough that it can be used to create structures like the walls of cells.
“We found convincing evidence that acrylonitrile is present in Titan’s atmosphere, and we think a significant supply of this raw material reaches the surface,” said Maureen Palmer, lead author on the paper which has just been published in the journal Science Advances.
The cells that help build the plants and animals on Earth wouldn’t stand a chance on Titan where the average surface temperature is about -179 degrees Celsius.
University scientists however were able to show that acrylonitrile molecules could be used to form a hollow, microscopic sphere that they named an “azotosome”.
If these spheres can form naturally then scientists believe you’ve got the first concrete piece of the puzzle in creating life on another planet.
“The ability to form a stable membrane to separate the internal environment from the external one is important because it provides a means to contain chemicals long enough to allow them to interact,” said Michael Mumma, director of the Goddard Center for Astrobiology.
“If membrane-like structures could be formed by vinyl cyanide, it would be an important step on the pathway to life on Saturn’s moon Titan.”
The team at NASA analysed 11 high-resolution images from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile.
What makes the discovery all the more impressive is that the images were actually never meant for research purposes.
Instead they were taken from an archive of images that had been used to simply calibrate the amount of light being taken in by the telescope array.