Scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has discovered a carbon-based molecule -- cyclopropenylidene -- in the atmosphere of Saturn's largest moon: Titan.
As per the scientists, this cyclopropenylidene, or C3H2, may be a precursor to more complex compounds that could form or feed possible life on Titan. This discovery was made using a radio telescope observatory in northern Chile known as the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimeter Array (ALMA).
Though scientists have found C3H2 in pockets throughout the galaxy, finding it in an atmosphere was a surprise for them because cyclopropenylidene can react easily with other molecules it comes into contact with and form different species.
So far, C3H2 is found only in clouds of gas and dust that float between star systems — in other words, regions too cold and diffuse to facilitate many chemical reactions.
“When I realised I was looking at cyclopropenylidene, my first thought was, ‘Well, this is really unexpected,’” said Conor Nixon, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland, who led the ALMA search. His team’s findings were published on October 15 in the Astronomical Journal
According to NASA, Titan, which the largest of Saturn’s 62 moons, is in some ways similar to earth. Unlike any other moon in the solar system — of which there are more than 200 — Titan has a thick atmosphere that’s four times denser than that on earth, plus clouds, rain, lakes and rivers, and even a sub-surface ocean of salty water.
The types of molecules that might be sitting on Titan’s surface could be the same ones that formed the building blocks of life on earth. Scientists suspect that early in its history, 3.8 to 2.5 billion years ago, when methane filled earth’s air instead of oxygen, conditions could have been similar to that on Titan today.
“Titan is unique in our solar system. It has proved to be a treasure trove of new molecules,” Nixon said.