As a first step, NASA scientists discovered a molecule of cyclopropenylidene (C3H2) in the atmosphere of the largest of Saturn’s 62 moons, Titan. Scientists call this development “unexpected” and claim that this is the first time they have detected this molecule in an atmosphere. They found C3H2 using a radio telescope observatory in northern Chile known as the Atacama Large Millimeter / Submillimeter Array (ALMA). Scientists believe this carbon-based molecule could be a “precursor to more complex compounds that could potentially make or feed life on titanium”.
The discovery of the molecule in Titan’s atmosphere is also surprising, as C3H2 has so far only been found in pockets throughout the galaxy in clouds of gas and dust floating between star systems. These areas are too cold to allow many chemical reactions. The Titan’s atmosphere is dense and they are beehives of chemical activity. NASA says that cyclopropenylidene can easily react with other molecules in this type of atmosphere, and that’s why scientists are now more interested in this moon.
“When I realized I was looking at cyclopropenylidene, my first thought was, ‘Well, that’s really unexpected,” said Conor Nixon, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Nixon, who led the ALMA search , and his team were able to identify small amounts of C3H2 in Titan, likely because they were looking in the upper layers of the lunar atmosphere, where there are fewer other gases that C3H2 can interact with released in the Astronomical Journal.
“Titan is unique in our solar system. It has proven to be a treasure trove of new molecules, ”added Nixon. According to the scientists, the discovery of this molecule could help them find life on Titan, the target of NASA’s upcoming Dragonfly mission. Titan is in some ways similar to Earth in that it has clouds, rain, lakes and rivers, and an underground ocean of salt water. However, Titan has a thick atmosphere that is four times denser than that of Earth.
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