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Titan’s Atmosphere May Hold Clues For The Origin of Life

The study of nitrogen compounds found in Titan's atmosphere may help scientists understand how life originally formed on our own planet.

Titan

Photo: NASA

NASA's Cassini spacecraft shows Titan and its envelope of orange smog. This smog is actually the hydrocarbon soot that may contain reactive nitrogen compounds.

There is still much research to be done, but scientists are hopeful that we can learn some key information about the origin of life by looking more closely at Saturn’s great moon, Titan.

NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn uncovered some very interesting information about Titan’s atmosphere. Scientists use an intense ultraviolet light beam to break apart and study the atmospheric makeup.

They were surprised to find that Titan’s atmosphere contains complex organic compounds. What scientists have yet to discover is whether or not these complex organic molecules are the same kind of molecules that could have given rise to life on Earth.

The interesting fact about Titan is that, besides Earth, it has the only other sizable atmosphere that is made up of mostly nitrogen in our solar system.

When an organic compound is nitrogenated, that means that the nitrogen is arranged in a way that makes it usable by organic lifeforms. These reactive nitrogen compounds are, in fact, essential for life as we know it.

Most of the nitrogen compounds on Earth are actually created by organic lifeforms themselves. But if life isn’t possible without these compounds, then it must have originally come from some other source, right? Perhaps clues about this pre-life environment can be found on Titan!

Read More:

  • Formation of Nitrogen Organic Aerosols in the Titan Upper Atmosphere (PNAS)
  • Modeling the Atmosphere of Titan at the Advanced Light Source (BerkeleyLab)

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Molly Plunkett

is a journalism student at Indiana University and an online producer for A Moment of Science. She is originally from Wheaton, IL.

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