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NASA: “Weird” molecules on Saturn’s moon may point to alien life



  • NASA astronomers have discovered a “very strange small molecule” called “cyclopropenyl” in the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan.
  • Scientists believe that alien life can survive in Titan’s underground Aral Sea.
  • This molecule can act as a stepping stone for more complex molecules that play an important role in sustaining life.
  • Cyclopropene subunits are extremely unstable, so they have never been detected in any other atmosphere.
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Saturn’s originally weird Saturn Moon has become a bit strange. Astronomers have detected cyclopropene (C3H2) in their atmosphere, an extremely rare carbon-based molecule that has high reactivity and can only exist on Earth under laboratory conditions.

In fact, it is so rare that it has never been found in the atmosphere, the solar system or elsewhere. The only place it can remain stable is the cold sky of interstellar space. But this may be the basis of more complex organic molecules, which may one day lead to life.

Melissa Trainer, an astrobiologist at NASA̵

7;s Goddard Space Flight Center, said: “We think of Titan as a real laboratory where we can see chemicals similar to ancient Earth. “It will land on the moon in the Dragonfly mission launched in 2027.

Dragonfly nuclear powered drone helicopter airplane nasa titan saturn moon illustration jhuapl

An illustration of NASA’s Dragonfly drone flying on Saturn’s moon Titan.

Warburg



“We will look for molecules larger than C3H2, but we need to know what is happening in the atmosphere to understand the chemical reactions that cause complex organic molecules to form and descend to the surface.”

Cyclopropenyl (or even called “very weird small molecule” by NASA researchers) does not last long under atmospheric conditions because it reacts very quickly and easily with other molecules to form other compounds.

Once this is done, it is no longer cyclopropene. In interstellar space, any gas or dust is usually very cold and very dispersed, which means that the interaction between the compounds is not large and the cyclopropenyl group can linger.

Titan is very different from interstellar space. A bit humid, lakes with hydrocarbons, clouds of hydrocarbons, mainly nitrogen, and a little methane. The thickness of the atmosphere is four times that of the earth’s atmosphere (the latter is also the main source of nitrogen). Below the surface, scientists believe that there is a huge ocean of salt water.

Titan Hydrocarbon Lake

The artist’s vision envisions hydrocarbon ice formed on the liquid hydrocarbon ocean on Saturn’s moon Titan.

NASA / JPL-Caltech / USGS



In 2016, a team led by planetary scientist Conor Nixon of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center used Chile’s Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) to explore the lunar atmosphere and search for organic molecular.

It is located in the fragile upper atmosphere higher above the surface, where they detected unknown chemical signatures. By comparing it with a chemical signature database, the research team identified the molecule as cyclopropene. The thinness of the atmosphere at that height may contribute to the survival of the molecule, but why it appeared on Titan without other worlds is a mystery.

Nixon said: “When I realized that I was working on cyclopropenyl, my first thought was,’Well, this is really unexpected.’ “Titanium is unique in our solar system. It turns out that it is a treasure trove of new molecules. “

Titan

The view of Titan III taken by the Cassini spacecraft shows a thick cloud of methane.

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute



The cyclopropene subunit is of particular interest because it is a so-called ring molecule. Its three carbon atoms are connected together in a ring (well, a triangle, but the principle is the same). Although the cyclopropene subunit itself has no biological effect, the nucleobases of DNA and RNA are based on such molecular rings.

Alexander Seren, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said: “Their cyclical nature opens up this additional branch of chemistry, allowing you to build these biologically important molecules.”

The smaller the molecule, the greater its potential-reactions involving smaller molecules with fewer bonds are expected to occur faster than reactions involving larger, more complex molecules. This means that reactions involving smaller molecules, purely through numbers, will lead to a more diverse range of results.

Previously, benzene (C6H6) was considered the smallest hydrocarbon ring molecule found in any atmosphere (including the Titans). The cyclopropene subunit was defeated.

Titan Cassini

In the upper right corner of this photo of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, the southern end of the Titan Liquid Hydrocarbon Lake can be seen near its north pole.

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute



Titan is already a honeycomb of organic chemical activity. Nitrogen and methane decompose in the sun, triggering a series of chemical reactions. Whether these reactions can lead to life is a question that scientists are eager to answer.

Rosalie Lopez, a geologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said: “We are trying to determine whether Titan is suitable for habitation.” “So we want to know what compounds in the atmosphere reach the surface and then whether the substance is The ocean below can be reached through the ice shell, because we think the ocean is a habitable condition.”

Finding out which compounds are present in the atmosphere is a very important step in this research process. Cyclopropenyl may be small and strange, but this extremely rare molecule may be a key part of Titan’s chemistry puzzle. Now, we just need to figure out its location.

This research has been published in the Astronomical Journal.


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