Back in 2005, the Cassini space probe did a fly-by of Saturn and its moons. The data it recovered was mind-boggling. Scientists found liquid reservoirs, energy sources, and organic molecules. In other words, an environment from which life could spring forth.
I hear what some of you are saying -- "But, Peter, Titan is colder than primordial Earth, -289 F!" Well, okay, you may not be saying exactly that, but the point is that Titan, being just a bit warmer than liquid nitrogen, would be incapable of supporting life. The lack of oxygen would be a problem as well, right? Well, not necessarily. Scientists have recently classified a branch of bacteria called "extremophiles". They are capable of survival in harsher environments than anyone imagined. There's a specific branch of them called "psychrophiles" that have been found to survive in temperatures ranging from 23 to 68 F. Not icing up and dying, living. Life is stubborn.
Well, digested data from the Cassini probe has been released, and it presents something interesting. Hydrogen is present in the atmosphere of Titan. For the most part.
It's not there at the surface of Titan. It's gone. Almost like...something is breathing it.
Scientists initially thought it was sunlight affecting the hydrogen and turning it into acetylene. But Cassini found no traces of it.
The theory is that there is a methane-based life form on the planet, using the liquid there as a medium the way life on Earth uses water (it actually rains methane there). Scientists are reminding people it is just a theory, there could be other explanations. But the news media went nuts for Life On Mars (the theory, not the David Bowie song or excellent BBC series), so they are wondering about this now.
You have to admit, this is exciting. The possibility of a life form that thrives in harsh conditions that would kill an NYC sewer alligator could rewrite our entire understanding of life, how it came to be, and what it could become. Important conditions to sustain a methane-based life form have been established on Titan. Professor John Zarnecki, of the Open University, said, “We believe the chemistry is there for life to form. It just needs heat and warmth to kick-start the process. In four billion years’ time, when the Sun swells into a red giant, it could be paradise on Titan."
And I'll probably be stuck flying standby to get there....