Hey! Who's been eating my hydrogen?
June 5, 2010 6:05 AM   Subscribe

Cassini detects evidence suggesting methane based life on Saturn's moon Titan.

Two recently published papers highlight unexpected findings about how hydrogen and acetylene behave on the moon's surface.

A paper published in the journal Icarus found Hydrogen molecules appear to flow down through the atmosphere and disappear at the moon's surface, which was recently shown to have liquid methane at the surface. (Previously)

A separate paper discussing the lack of acetylene in the atmosphere was recently published in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

"This lack of acetylene is important because that chemical would likely be the best energy source for a methane-based life on Titan, said Chris McKay, an astrobiologist at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif."

(Couldn't find the actual journal articles. Icarus requires a subscription. If anyone can link to either, that would be great.)
posted by Brodiggitty (76 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
Cool. When the Sun goes nova Titan will be perfect for humans.
posted by bwg at 6:18 AM on June 5, 2010


Love how the comments section for the NASA page has a link entitled "We got rules, people."
posted by Ironmouth at 6:19 AM on June 5, 2010 [5 favorites]


It seems like a rather wild speculation to me, that the absence of acetylene in the atmosphere of Titan suggests that this chemical is being metabolized by some unknown methane-based form of life. There are other possible explanations for the absence of acetylene. Nonetheless, it would be tremendously exciting if there actually turns out to be some form of life on Titan with an entirely novel biochemistry unknown to our own planet.

Interplanetary exploration in general remains very interesting, but I also think that the economic, environmental, political and social problems of the 21st century are going to make it increasingly difficult for us to spend money pure research. We have more urgent matters to deal with first. The methane people of Titan will have to wait. Fortunately, they are known for their patience.
posted by grizzled at 6:24 AM on June 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


There are other possible explanations for the absence of acetylene.

They haven't discovered TIG yet?

Seriously though, this is an awesome post.
posted by atrazine at 6:29 AM on June 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Whoa! Better rocket some missionaries up there, toot sweet!
posted by The Card Cheat at 6:39 AM on June 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


The absence of detectable acetylene on the Titan surface can very well have a non-biological explanation, said Mark Allen, principal investigator with the NASA Astrobiology Institute Titan team. Allen is based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Allen said one possibility is that sunlight or cosmic rays are transforming the acetylene in icy aerosols in the atmosphere into more complex molecules that would fall to the ground with no acetylene signature.

"Scientific conservatism suggests that a biological explanation should be the last choice after all non-biological explanations are addressed," Allen said. "We have a lot of work to do to rule out possible non-biological explanations. It is more likely that a chemical process, without biology, can explain these results - for example, reactions involving mineral catalysts."


I need more data before I can demand that the UN adopt the Prime Directive.
posted by Atreides at 6:42 AM on June 5, 2010


Interplanetary exploration in general remains very interesting, but I also think that the economic, environmental, political and social problems of the 21st century are going to make it increasingly difficult for us to spend money pure research. We have more urgent matters to deal with first. The methane people of Titan will have to wait.

But you said that last century. And the century before that.
(kicks dirt) We're never gonna leave this crappy planet.
posted by hal9k at 6:43 AM on June 5, 2010 [39 favorites]


As a note, I'm not using the Bush WMD analysis method. If I were, I'd be writing the Secretary General right now.
posted by Atreides at 6:44 AM on June 5, 2010


If there is even a .01% percent of this being true, we need to quarantine Titan and cancel all future exploration projects there right now.
posted by Avenger at 7:04 AM on June 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


methane based life

Without even RTFA I am going to assume this means some kind of treacherous and sinister fartcreatures bent on the destruction of the human race.
posted by elizardbits at 7:12 AM on June 5, 2010 [15 favorites]


If there is even a .01% percent of this being true, we need to quarantine Titan and cancel all future exploration projects there right now.

What are the chances of our bacteria being able to infect methane based life forms or vice versa?
posted by AdamCSnider at 7:15 AM on June 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


We have absolutely no idea what the chances are. Thats why we should operate with ridiculous amounts of caution.
posted by Avenger at 7:19 AM on June 5, 2010 [4 favorites]


I think it was actually noted on MeFi somewhere recently that since bacteria/virii have spent millions of years co-evolving with their target hosts, the chances of them cross-infecting another species on EARTH, much less something with a completely different physiology, are incredibly slim... that's why it's such a rare event to see something cross the species barrier on earth (bird flu, AIDS, etc). Bacteria don't just infect any old thing they find, each strand is looking for a very specific set of biological conditions to foster growth in. The chances of terrestrial bacteria finding those conditions also match a *methane* based life form that operates at -290 degrees fahrenheit are astronomical, no pun intended.
posted by FatherDagon at 7:36 AM on June 5, 2010 [5 favorites]


Interplanetary exploration in general remains very interesting, but I also think that the economic, environmental, political and social problems of the 21st century are going to make it increasingly difficult for us to spend money pure research.

It's this sort of short sighted thinking that will probably doom us.

If we completely cut off all spending on research, our economic, environmental, political and social problems would not be solved, not one bit. Instead, we'd be left with all those problems and the lack of research to help us fix some of the problems.

Remember, we can do more than one thing at time. Even as America split and underwent some of its most turbulent times in the '60s, the country managed to put people into space (via NASA) and land on the moon. The research required to do that benefited humankind immensely.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:37 AM on June 5, 2010 [19 favorites]


ridiculous amounts of caution.

Meaning, of course, that we steal their cattle and stick flashlights up their butts.

The enemy is us.
posted by kaseijin at 7:38 AM on June 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Your mother's a methane-based lifeform.
posted by kcds at 7:42 AM on June 5, 2010 [4 favorites]


TBH if not for the slim chance of native life I'd be all for pelting or fellow planets and moons with all kinds of extremophile bacteria and seeing what sticks.
posted by Artw at 7:44 AM on June 5, 2010 [7 favorites]


I also think that the economic, environmental, political and social problems of the 21st century are going to make it increasingly difficult for us to spend money pure research. We have more urgent matters to deal with first.

A rat done bit my sister Nell...
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 7:45 AM on June 5, 2010 [6 favorites]


Or some reason I think Titan and methane-based life forms and my mind just went to this .

I have no idea why I suddenly think Titan is like a sleazy dive of a planet, filled with wispy, smoky creatures under the Saturn-Rise. I just do.


"See people. Brand new people."
posted by The Whelk at 7:46 AM on June 5, 2010


Gentlemen, I think we're going to have to go to ludicrous amounts of caution.
posted by rocket88 at 7:47 AM on June 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS EXCEPT EUROPA TITAN.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:49 AM on June 5, 2010 [4 favorites]


They haven't discovered TIG yet?

She was just a welder's daughter but she had acetylene... aww, nevermind. Dirty welder's joke.
posted by Brodiggitty at 7:50 AM on June 5, 2010


...we need to quarantine Titan and cancel all future exploration projects there right now.

Too late. They know we're here, and from what I understand, they're suing us in for 302,234,932 Galactic credits for what they call the $IEW SLG LSKD@ SKSW, which roughly translated means "What the hell is that and what is it doing in Tom's riverbed?!"

Their chief piece of evidence, a movie of the Huygens probe landing on Titan, is said to be rather damning and other carbon based lifeforms want nothing to do with us.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:52 AM on June 5, 2010


kaseijin: "Meaning, of course, that we steal their cattle and stick flashlights up their butts.

The enemy is us.
"

I'm just going to link to this comment of mine in all future threads like this.
posted by Joe Beese at 7:52 AM on June 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


TBH if not for the slim chance of native life I'd be all for pelting or fellow planets and moons with all kinds of extremophile bacteria and seeing what sticks.

Republicans first.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:53 AM on June 5, 2010


I'm not prejudiced but these creatures kinda smell bad, don't they? It's because they eat so much acetylene, it comes out of their pores.
posted by davebush at 7:55 AM on June 5, 2010


A mishap at a Kronos Hydroleum liquid hydrogen oxide drill has opened a volcano of the toxic solvent at the bottom of one of Titan's largest lakes. The oxide's highly bipolar molecule makes it one of the most powerful solvents known in its liquid form, and thus extremely valuable for industrial processes; but it is highly corrosive, particularly to the molecules of Titanian life, and there have already been heartbreaking photographs published of blagforks and ripdees floating ashore with there plinkers and Z-sacs rotted away. Kronos CEO S. A. Tan has promised that all the damage will be repaired but environmental watchblarg groups are pointing out that hydrogen oxide has a seriously corrosive effect on all known structural materials and that the last oxide release wasn't stopped until it had formed a mountain of toxic ice. Meanwhile, Titanian supreme leader H. Lee Bar Boor has gone on television to assure tourists that Titan's lakes are still open for business, that Titan's ecosystem literally floats on an ocean of hydrogen oxide and that scientists are sure the third Solar planet is almost completely covered with the stuff, so it can't be that bad.
posted by localroger at 7:55 AM on June 5, 2010 [34 favorites]


I knew about the oceans of hydrocarbons on Titan, and knew that decaying dinosaurs probably weren't the answer.
In the future, we won't have to worry about peak hydrocarbons, but we will have to deal with the methane based bacteria cartel.
posted by Balisong at 8:09 AM on June 5, 2010


Maybe we should go with a ridiculously large toilet whose tank supports a ridiculously large box of matches.
posted by pracowity at 8:38 AM on June 5, 2010


In reply to Brandon Blatcher, personally I think that pure research is a good thing and space exploration is a good thing, and I agree that the space program of the 1960's proved to be very beneficial. The moon landing was basically a stunt, something we did just to show that we could do it, but it proved to be the best stunt ever, and it was a great inspiration for continued progress in science and technology, which has had vast economic consequences. My previous comment is merely a prediction of what I think will happen, which is that the increasingly troubled state of Earth in the 21st century is going to interfere with ambitious programs of space exploration, rather than expressing what I would like to happen. In a more ideal world we would definitely want to fund further exploration of Titan, among other interesting places.
posted by grizzled at 8:39 AM on June 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Awesome. There's probably about as much to this as there was to the results of the Viking biological experiments, but it's still a lot of fun to think about.
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:41 AM on June 5, 2010


I can't link to the full articles of either of these papers, unfortunately, but I did dig up the full citation information for the two papers. Hopefully once they're fully published the authors will be able to post preprints or something (which should then turn up in Google Scholar).

Clark, R. N., J. M. Curchin, J. W. Barnes, R. Jaumann, L. Soderblom, D. P. Cruikshank, R. H. Brown, S. Rodriguez, J. Lunine, K. Stephan, T. M. Hoefen, S. Le Mouelic, C. Sotin, K. H. Baines, B. J. Buratti, and P. D. Nicholson (2010), Detection and Mapping of Hydrocarbon Deposits on Titan, Journal of Geophysical Research, doi:10.1029/2009JE003369, in press.

Strobe, Darrell F. (2010), Molecular hydrogen in Titan’s atmosphere: Implications of the measured tropospheric and thermospheric mole fractions, Icarus, doi:10.1016/j.icarus.2010.03.003, in press.
posted by lris at 8:47 AM on June 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


James Cameron is alread prepping his rocket delivered bathysphere for launch. He's going to bring us back some sweet oil eating xenobacteria.
posted by Artw at 9:00 AM on June 5, 2010


I have no idea why I suddenly think Titan is like a sleazy dive of a planet, filled with wispy, smoky creatures under the Saturn-Rise

Titan is tidally locked to Saturn, meaning that it's rotation matches it's orbit so that the same face of Titan is always facing Saturn, so there is no Saturn-rise on Titan unless you are actively moving around the moon. Additionally, Titan is on the same plane as the rings, so when you look toward Saturn you don't see the rings, because they are too thin to really be seen edge-on. The main feature of Saturn seen from Titan would be the ever changing shadows the rings cast on Saturn's atmosphere. Of course, if you are on the surface you won't be able to see Saturn anyway because the atmosphere is opaque to visual light; so the only way to really enjoy the view of Saturn is from orbit.

But yeah, Titan is a sleazy dive, but in a good way, except that everyone smokes. Seriously, who smokes on a smegging orbiter?
posted by fuq at 9:05 AM on June 5, 2010 [5 favorites]


The Card Cheat: "Whoa! Better rocket some missionaries up there, toot sweet!"

Loading proselytizers onto rockets and firing them into deep space is the kind of missionary position I can really get behind.
posted by Rat Spatula at 9:13 AM on June 5, 2010 [8 favorites]


Blah blah blah 'overlords'... wth people?
posted by Rat Spatula at 9:14 AM on June 5, 2010


I'm not worried about our methane overlords cause like fire, our bestest invention let me show you it.
posted by The Whelk at 9:17 AM on June 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Methane Overlords are already here AND LIVING INSDIE US. In, like, our butts.
posted by Artw at 9:19 AM on June 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


If there is even a .01% percent of this being true, we need to quarantine Titan and cancel all future exploration projects there right now.

What are the chances of our bacteria being able to infect methane based life forms or vice versa?


Well, infect, as in make them ill? Not necessarily high. But if we're talking about simple one-celled organisms, there are methanotrophs - methane-eating bacteria - on Earth. (Though, to be fair, the ones I am familiar with probably wouldn't much like Titan for other reasons.) The potential for (some of) our bacteria to become problematic invasive species on other planets, possibly competing with local organisms for resources, seems like a more likely threat than the possibility of our bacteria actually infecting species on other planets.
posted by ubersturm at 9:20 AM on June 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


I knew the cows couldn't be trusted!
posted by The Whelk at 9:20 AM on June 5, 2010


This is so weird. Just watched Gattaca last night.

Director Josef: You keep your work station so clean, Jerome.
Vincent: It's next to godliness. Isn't that what they say?
Director Josef: Godliness. I reviewed your flight plan. Not one error in a million keystrokes. Phenomenal. It's right that someone like you is taking us to Titan.
Vincent: Has the committee approved the mission? There's been talk of delay.
Director Josef: You shouldn't listen to talk. You leave in a week. You've got a substance test.

posted by Baby_Balrog at 9:23 AM on June 5, 2010


...personally I think that pure research is a good thing and space exploration is a good thing...

Yesss, this specimen has been properly infected with Titans.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:32 AM on June 5, 2010


If there is even a .01% percent of this being true, we need to quarantine Titan and cancel all future exploration projects there right now.

The only conceivable organism capable of surviving would be a methanotroph who I doubt can survive the balmy −179.5 °C weather. I see no evidence that these species are capable of sporulation, which allows survival in extreme environments. (Or, what ubersturm just said.)

But all this is beside the point; this is not compelling evidence of life on Titan.
posted by jjray at 9:34 AM on June 5, 2010


All this life detection through chemisty reminds me of James Lovelock's mars work.
posted by Artw at 9:44 AM on June 5, 2010


ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS EXCEPT ... dude, what's that smell? Did you just fart? WTF?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:50 AM on June 5, 2010


Artist's representation of what Titan's life may look like:

.
posted by swimming naked when the tide goes out at 9:56 AM on June 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


missionary position I can really get behind.

No. You're not doing it right.
posted by Babblesort at 10:19 AM on June 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


For those of you commenting on the possibility of contaminating Titan and introducing life forms, know that NASA does think about these topics pretty hard. Certainly the Huygens mission down to the surface of Titan met their criteria.

And this will be my opportunity to point, yet again, to these two astounding videos that resulted from the Huygens mission:

1. Actual pictures taken during descent and resultant virtual movie. With sound.

NASA JPL's page on the video, with description and download links

direct link to Quicktime video (15 MB)

Youtube link

2. All of the data that came back from Huygens during the descent. Truly a tour de force in scientific data visualization, and possibly the most amazing video I've ever seen in my life.

NASA JPL's page on the video, with download links and description of all the minute screen elements

direct link to smaller Quicktime video (11 MB)

direct link to larger Quicktime video (157 MB)

The smaller 11 MB video is barely legible, so I strongly encourage you to make the effort to download the larger 157 MB video (run the download overnight or something).
posted by intermod at 10:54 AM on June 5, 2010 [17 favorites]


Interplanetary exploration in general remains very interesting, but I also think that the economic, environmental, political and social problems of the 21st century are going to make it increasingly difficult for us to spend money pure research.

First of all the 21st century is only 10 years old. There are 90 years left. The 20th century started out with WWI (after a decade or so of calm). Then the Great depression and then WWII. I mean. There were a lot of chaos and problems. But we still had a ton of scientific innovation.

Also, the economic stuff is not really that big of a deal. People keep saying we need to spend less money, that's actually completely the wrong approach. The economy is created by the transfer of money, not the money itself. Money in a vault somewhere does nothing for anyone. It's only when money is spent that stuff happens. These days people don't want to spend their money because they're worried they won't get it back... because other people are also not spending! It's quite stupid.

Investing in scientific research would be a great way to stimulate the economy.
posted by delmoi at 11:29 AM on June 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


"methane based life on Saturn's moon Titan"

Oh god please please please!
posted by theDTs at 11:35 AM on June 5, 2010


Sounds like beanplating is a Titan specialty, so I extend a warm mefi welcome to them.
posted by maxwelton at 11:36 AM on June 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


bye bye little green men, hello little blue men?
posted by canned polar bear at 11:41 AM on June 5, 2010


Interestingly titan has a liquid water core underneath it's ice crust. So that's another place where life might live.
posted by delmoi at 11:44 AM on June 5, 2010


Life on Titan sure is adorable!

(But IIRC, it talks to itself.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:50 AM on June 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


I say we take off and nuke the site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.
posted by Infinite Jest at 11:57 AM on June 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


I would totally welcome our new methane-based overlords... so long as I can blame the smell on the dog.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 12:07 PM on June 5, 2010


The Big Picture: Checking in on Saturn
posted by homunculus at 12:23 PM on June 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


The only type of exploration of Titan or any of the moons of the outer planets that is feasible in the near future is via robotic probes and those are not spectacularly expensive. Cassini-Huygens was about $3.25 billion, Juno is estimated at $700 million. Together that would buy a couple of B2 bombers or 1/10th what you need to bail out one tiny bank. If there is a chance there is life of any kind in our solar system I would love to know about it before I die. Other than the slight chance of contamination, what possible objection can there be to finding out?
posted by Tashtego at 12:36 PM on June 5, 2010


We must obliterate them.
posted by neuromodulator at 1:11 PM on June 5, 2010


Oops, I said it had a liquid water core. That's obviously not correct, but there is a layer of water under the ice. So not only does it have liquid methane seas, it also has an enormous planetwide sea underneath the layer with those oceans. Kind of fascinating. Water plays the same role on Titian that magma does on earth. Also, this somewhat random article on the hypothetical colonization of titan indicates that it's atmosphere is actually thicker then earth's (1.5 times the pressure). That means people would only need gas masks to walk around. Well. Aside from the cold.

You could build buildings out of ice and you wouldn't have to worry about keeping them pressurized, just keeping oxygen inside (and poisonous gases out), which we can get from cracking water.
posted by delmoi at 1:44 PM on June 5, 2010


Your mother's a methane-based lifeform.

yeah, so she farts alot. you got a problem with that?

she also is a lovely woman that raised 4 kids, supports our troops, cooks a mean casserole, can knit entire sweaters in hours, helps habitat for humanity, and will outplay you at scrabble any day of the week. most of all she was always there for me. show some respect lest i beat you up to hold you down and blow some methane in your face in a way that you never, ever forget whose flatulence chromosomes i inherited.
posted by the aloha at 2:07 PM on June 5, 2010


We have neighbors! We should bring them a cake or something.
posted by brundlefly at 3:42 PM on June 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Okay, maybe there is life on Titan.

The question is: do the Titans clash?
posted by bwg at 3:43 PM on June 5, 2010


Well, some of them are pretty belligerent, yes .
posted by homunculus at 4:01 PM on June 5, 2010


One of the stats that caught my attention from Brian Cox's TED talk about why we need to continue to explore was that the Apollo program paid itself back by a factor of 14, i.e. every dollar spent on the program resulted in 14 dollars of wealth being generated. (Also, I think I have a man-crush on him after watching Wonders of the Solar System.)
posted by Rhomboid at 7:00 PM on June 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Carl Sagan connection.

Titan may be a strict test for life's cosmic ubiquity. Tidal heating may cause there to be sub-surface oceans on all of Saturn's ice moons. There is also the possibility for the exchange of ejecta; at least within the moon system itself. So it seems that some peoples fear of contamination are a bit pointless. The evidence for panspermia is adding up.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 7:20 PM on June 5, 2010


Methane is odorless. The smell that a fart carries is actually atomized fecal matter, along with hydrogen sulfide and methanethiol, which accounts for its wide variety of odors. Yes, there is actual shit and poison gas going up your nose when you pull Uncle Elmer's finger.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:24 PM on June 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


There is also the possibility for the exchange of ejecta;

That's what he said.
Sorry, I couldn't resist.
posted by XMLicious at 8:33 PM on June 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


We have absolutely no idea what the chances are. Thats why we should operate with ridiculous amounts of caution.

That's great advice and likely completely correct, but sadly your audience is a bunch of carbon-based hunter-gatherers who got where they are by poking unknown things with sticks.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:54 PM on June 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


That's great advice and likely completely correct, but sadly your audience is a bunch of carbon-based hunter-gatherers who got where they are by poking unknown things with sticks.

Well the universe has "poked" our planet a few times so I think it's only fair we poke back.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 10:18 PM on June 5, 2010


That's great advice and likely completely correct, but sadly your audience is a bunch of carbon-based hunter-gatherers who got where they are by poking unknown things with sticks.

Q: "What is it?"
A: "Don't know"
Q: "Can I eat it?"
A: "Only one way to find out..."
Fast forward a couple of million years
4. Profit!!!!!!!!!!!!
posted by fuq at 12:28 AM on June 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Thanks for that enlightening information, Slap*Happy. Damn.
posted by zoinks at 4:52 AM on June 6, 2010


actually atomized fecal matter

I wish I could unread that.
posted by theredpen at 1:20 PM on June 6, 2010


Oh hell there's only one thing it could possibly be—stovebellies! Or maybe it's fishimanders?
posted by kipmanley at 9:30 PM on June 6, 2010


bwg: "Cool. When the Sun goes nova Titan will be perfect for humans."

Oops, I meant to say when the Sun becomes a red giant. Our Sun is too small to become a supernova.
posted by bwg at 5:20 PM on June 7, 2010


Cassini Skims Through Titan’s Upper Atmosphere
posted by homunculus at 4:15 PM on June 21, 2010


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