Saturn has 83 moons. But one of them, Titan, is special. This is because it is the only moon in the entire solar system with a substantial atmosphere. Cold, sure, but an atmosphere nonetheless. On its surface, Titan has freezing rivers and methane lakes. Under the surface is ice. And below, water. Lot of its.
Titan is big, too: 40 percent the size of Earth, in fact.
There may be even more to Titan than we already know. According to Avi Loeb, a Harvard physicist and a great proponent of an aggressive search for alien life, Titan could not only harbor strange life forms in and around its rivers of methane, but it could also lead us towards similar life up similar planetary bodies throughout the universe.
“Titan would be a hotbed for life on cold planets and moons,” Loeb told The Daily Beast. He detailed his theory of him in a new peer-reviewed article that is slated for publication in American Astronomical Society Research Notes. The document appeared online on December 2.
Saturn’s moon Titan could be the hotbed for alien life across the universe.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Institute of Space Sciences
The bitter coldness of the huge moon is the key to Loeb’s argument. Revolving around Saturn about 900 million miles from the sun, Titan has an average temperature of nearly 300 degrees below zero degrees Fahrenheit. It’s too cold for life on Earth, but it may not be for hardy, methane-loving microbes that could be the possible starting point for a very strange evolution.
Strange to we, this is. In fact, it might be quite common by galactic standards.
There are many planets and moons in our solar system that have, or had, the potential to support life: Mars with its dried up oceans, Venus and its noxious, nutrient-rich atmosphere, and Io, a moon of Jupiter with hundreds of active volcanoes and lots of pent-up energy.
What’s especially interesting about Titan is that its coolness is typical of potentially billions of moons and planets throughout the universe. If hardy, cold-resistant life forms can evolve there, they could also evolve on many other similar planets and moons.
Saturn may have gotten its rings by killing one of its moons
Taking a fresh look at the survey data, Loeb concluded that Titan’s temperature matches the level of warming that should result solely from the universe’s microwave background radiation. In other words, if you pick one of the unilluminated “rogue” planets drifting in the vast void between the stars and measure its temperature, you might expect that planet to be as cold as Titan.
“It doesn’t need to be anywhere near a star,” Loeb told The Daily Beast. “The cosmic microwave background, left over from the Big Bang, would have kept it [that] temperature.” Life forms that are comfortable on Titan might also be comfortable on countless other moons, planets and floating rogue planets, and even large asteroids.
As a bonus, many moons, planets and other objects in space have started to stabilize at an average temperature of 300 degrees below zero starting very early in the long life of the universe. The Big Bang happened about 13.8 billion years ago. Just 100 million years later, there were likely many planets and moons with the average temperature Titan has now, Loeb said.
According to NASA: This composite image shows an infrared view of Saturn’s moon Titan from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, captured during the mission’s “T-114” flyby on November 13, 2015.
NASA/JPL-CalTech/University of Arizona
“If life exists on Titan, then it could have emerged in the universe 100 million years after the Big Bang,” Loeb explained. The first microbes didn’t appear on Earth until 3.7 billion years ago. Then Titaneseque life would have a An advantage of 10 billion years.
That long lead alone is a good reason to go looking for cold life forms on cold planets and moons. Assuming that there is life all over the universe – and more and more scientists are getting closer to that possibility – the titanic life could be the more ancient form of life and potentially the most common. “This is my new main point, which has to do with the question of when life started in the cosmos,” Loeb said.
Still, there’s good reason to be skeptical of Loeb’s “old and cold” profile of possible life on Titan. To begin with, not all astrobiologists or planetary scientists agree that the universe’s microwave background would heat distant planets and moons to a constant temperature of 300 degrees below zero. “I do not know [radiation] it’s a reasonable source of heat,” Matthew Siegler, an astronomer at the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona, told the Daily Beast.
Methane clouds drifting over Titan.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Institute of Space Sciences
Even if the background radiation does warming planets and moons to the same temperature as Titan, it’s worth remembering how cold 300 degrees below zero is and how bad it can be for evolution. Extreme cold tends to slow down chemical reactions and there is no evolution without sustained chemistry. “How much is too slow for something to react faster than it is destroyed?” asked Siegler. “Does Titan have enough energy for life?”
Nobody knows for sure. But we may find out soon. NASA plans to launch a probe called Dragonfly to Titan in 2027. It should arrive at the moon seven years later.
Even if Dragonfly finds conditions for, or even direct evidence of, microbial life on Titan, we shouldn’t rush to the conclusion that similar cold-loving life is present on countless ancient space rocks, David Grinspoon, an astrobiologist who is also with the Planetary Science Institute, he told The Daily Beast.
If there is life, or remnants of life, on Saturn’s moon, it could be because Titan, despite its low temperature, is more like Earth than the much older and colder planets and moons in the universe. “The best kind of world to find life is one with a young surface, vigorous geologic activity, active weather cycles, interesting active chemistry, and abundant phase changes,” Grinspoon said. “Like the Earth. And like Titan.
Read more at The Daily Beast.
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