‘Strange Life’ on Titan? New organic molecule discovery could mean it’s possible

Titan, as seen in radar images from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, is a complex world with methane/ethane rain, rivers, lakes and seas. Could it support life of some kind? Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Saturn’s largest moon Titan is a bizarre place with a thick and hazy nitrogen atmosphere, vast hydrocarbon dunes and methane/ethane rain, rivers, lakes and seas. It is thought to closely resemble what the early Earth looked like. While it is much colder than any place here, some scientists have considered the possibility that there could some form of primitive life, albeit “strange life,” unlike anything on Earth. Could the lakes and seas, while not water, still support biology? It’s a much-debated question, and now new evidence suggests that may indeed be possible. The organic compound acrylonitrile (vinyl cyanide) has now been detected in Titan’s atmosphere for the first time, which could, theoretically, form cell-like membranes under Titan’s extreme conditions.

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Grand Finale part 3: Cassini completes third ring dive, sees bright clouds on Titan

Two versions of the image of Titan’s clouds, taken on May 7, 2017. The first is with stronger enhancement, and the second is with softer enhancement. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

NASA’s Cassini probe has now survived its third dive into Saturn’s rings, specifically the gap between the innermost rings and the planet itself. This is just the latest in a series of 22 such planned dives for the Grand Finale phase, before the mission ends on Sept. 15, 2017. This time, as well as obtaining more close-up views of the rings and Saturn’s atmosphere again, Cassini took a look at Saturn’s largest moon Titan from a distance, and saw some of the longest and brightest clouds in the hazy atmosphere that it has seen in the entire mission. Even though Cassini won’t be making any more close flybys of Titan, these new views are fantastic.

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Cassini completes last flyby of Titan and first dive between Saturn and rings in ‘Grand Finale’

Raw image from Cassini’s last-ever flyby of Titan, taken on April 21, 2017. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has now officially entered the last phase of its mission – the “Grand Finale,” with the last-ever close flyby of Titan and the first of 22 final orbits which will take the spacecraft closer to Saturn than ever before, passing between the inner rings and the planet itself. Cassini has today just completed the first of these passes (with results pending for a few hours as of this writing), which will culminate on Sept. 15 with the spacecraft plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere to meet its fiery end. It will be a sad but incredible ending to an incredible mission.

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Cassini enters ‘Grand Finale’ phase of mission and solves a ‘bubbling mystery’ on Titan’s seas

Artist’s conception of Cassini’s final flyby of Titan on April 21. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This week marks another important milestone in the Cassini mission at Saturn – as of today, the spacecraft is conducting the last Ring-Grazing Orbit of its mission as it prepares for the Grand Finale, which will culminate in the death of the probe on Sept. 15. On April 21, Cassini will do its very last close flyby of Saturn’s largest moon Titan. Speaking of Titan, Cassini has also apparently solved a perplexing mystery; the unusual “magic island” formations seen in one of the moon’s methane/ethane seas are now thought to be caused by nitrogen bubbles fizzing periodically on the sea’s surface.

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