Electrical Activity on Titan Confirmed: The Spark for Life?

Titan not only has an atmosphere it has hydrocarbon lakes, oceans, sand dunes and now research has just been published proving Saturn’s moon is sparkling with electrical activity. Scientists are in general agreement that organic molecules, the precursors to life on Earth, are a consequence of lightning in the atmosphere. Now, using data from the Huygens probe that descended through Titan’s atmosphere in 2005 and continued transmitting for 90 minutes after touchdown, Spanish scientists have “unequivocally” proven that Titan has electrical storms too. The presence of electrical activity in the atmosphere is causing much excitement as this could mean that organic compounds may be found in abundance on the Titan surface.

The fruits from the Cassini-Huygens mission are coming thick and fast. Only yesterday, Nancy reviewed the discovery of liquid hydrocarbon lakes by Cassini’s Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS). Although possible lakes have been theorized, it is only now that there is observational proof of the existence of such features. Now, three years after the Huygens probe dropped through Titan’s atmosphere, scientists have made another crucial discovery: Titan experiences electrical activity in its atmosphere. Now Titan has all the necessary components for life; it has an atmosphere with electrical activity, increasing the opportunity for prebiotic organic compounds to form, thus increasing the possibility for life to evolve.

According to Juan Antonio Morente from the University of Granada, Titan is already considered a “unique world in the solar system” since the early 20th Century when Spanish astronomer José Comas y Solá made the discovery that the Saturn moon had an atmosphere. This is what makes Titan special, it has a thick atmosphere, something that is not observed on any other natural satellite in the Solar System.

On this moon clouds with convective movements are formed and, therefore, static electrical fields and stormy conditions can be produced. This also considerably increases the possibility of organic and prebiotic molecules being formed, according to the theory of the Russian biochemist Alexander I. Oparín and the experiment of Stanley L. Miller [who managed to synthesise organic compounds from inorganic compounds through electrical discharges] That is why Titan has been one of the main objectives of the Cassini-Huygens joint mission of NASA and the European Space Agency” – Juan Antonio Morente.

Morente and his team analysed data from Huygens’ Mutual Impedance Probe (MIP) that measured the atmospheric electrical field. The MIP instrument was primarily used to measure the atmosphere’s electrical conductivity but it also acted as a dipolar antenna, detecting the natural electric field. The MIP was therefore able to detect a set of spectral peaks of extremely low frequency (ELF) radio signals (known as “Schumann resonances”). These ELF peaks are formed between the moon’s ionosphere and a huge resonant cavity in which electromagnetic fields are confined.

The detection of these signals have led the Spanish researchers to state that it is “irrefutable” evidence of electrical activity on Titan, not dissimilar to static charge that builds up in the terrestrial atmosphere, leading to electrical storms.

Source: Scientific Blogging

33 Replies to “Electrical Activity on Titan Confirmed: The Spark for Life?”

  1. Schumann freqs at 7.8 cps resonate well w cells. I wonder if the -300F and ethane pools wouldn’t be deleterious for any large molecules to form. Enzyme rxs would slow to a crawl & alkanes dissolve membranes. Like rungs of a ladder, you need a controlled activation energy to jump start rxns. Electrical storms might be too strong or haphazard. The intermediate ‘resonance’ structures lower act energy, but they need catalytic enzymes, which must also be inhibitory to slow & control metabolic rx byproducts. Often, a metabolite negatively feeds cycle ( ex. alcohol from yeast). Without this control, we would melt, thaw & resolve ourselves into a dew. I don’t believe life requires bullyins of yeerz to form, just semistable intermediary ‘punctuated’ forms along the way, as rest stops. What takes time is tilling the soil: plankton, plants, geo weathering of minerals, oxygen, ozone….. Devolution reverses this process: like the earthlings who have 6X plastic as plankton in ocean, blasted part of ozone shield, desertification, erosion, pollution, ad nauseum.
    Titans 6: Earthlings nada.

  2. I forget the name of it but there was a sat. that was turned around, but the earth looked like a little speck you could’nt even tell what you were lookin at. but it was cool !!!

  3. This article immediately brought to mind the famous “Miller-Urey experiment” performed in 1953 at the University of Chicago. By passing a current through a chamber with filled with simple molecules, they were able to produce an organic ‘goo’ that contained several pre-biotic amino acids. Though other researchers had performed experiments similar to this (see ‘Miller-Urey experiment’ @ Wikipedia), publication in Science in 1953 put this field of ‘cosmochemistry’ on the map. It seems Titan, too, contains all the necessary ingredients to naturally perform this experiment, although at a lower temperature. It sure begs the question of whether Titan’s rich organic composition was formed in a similar way & if life itself may have been (or is) possible. Many exciting prospects with this line of research on Titan.

  4. This is really exciting!!
    Are there going to be more follow-up studies…….

  5. Very exciting news, although not unexpected.

    The low temperature and lack of liquid water (ofc with that temperature) is still a problem though, as far is suspected. But nevertheless, we dont know all for certain – maybe life can find a way here aswell…

  6. I think it is pretty obvious there would be electrical activity on Titan, but now that there is confirmed lakes, this is very promising for life.

    Even better is that this life would have to evolve to the terrain on Titan: high radiation, low / no sunlight, possibly no water either (you never know)

    By the time we get there, hopefully we will meet something.

  7. Combine this with the observation fo water in Mars by phoenix ,proves that conditions for Organic lfe is not unique to earth .In fact the Franck deric’s equations seems to be more rational rather than hypothatical after this .

  8. I’ll just throw this thought out there:

    Doesn’t the existence of large quantities of liquid ethane on Titan *proves* that carbon-based life does not exist there?

    Because if there were such organisms on Titan they would have consumed the ethane.

  9. Has anyone ever had the idea of sending a probe into deep space, and then using it to look at the Earth from great distances? Doing that, you could figure out what types of things you need to look for to indicate life and possibly intelligent life. From that distance, seeing cities would be impossible, but seeing an increase in CO2 over 20years might be possible and telling. Also resolving continents is impossible, but the spectral anaylsis that would give large quantities of H, O, C, N and Si would be telling. As well as the normal observations of speed, mass, spin, and temperature. If we know exactly what we need to look for, it could help us find life faster.

  10. What I find exciting about this is not so much the surface conditions, but the subsurface. Radar images of Titan showed that over a period of a few years, the crust has moved, up to 19 miles. There hasn’t been much science done on why that might be, but one hypothesis had a decoupled frozen water crust “sliding” over a liquid ocean. So if you have life precursors above, and a habitable environment below, the possibility for life on Titan becomes a little better.

  11. First, there may not BE a lot of carbon on Titan, but possibly a ‘dreezing frizzle’ siphoned off Saturn. Carbon, though abundant in space, isn’t on many planets in quantity, even our planet has dearth of carbon- compared to other elements. The satellite images represent smooth reflections of surface alkanes, could be a ‘pud muddle’ instead of abundant lake. “Reflections of…..the way life used to be?”

  12. If electric sparks in an atmosphere are thought to be requirements for life, why are people so hyped on finding life in the oceans of Europa? There’s no lightning there or on the surface above the ice.

    The answer, I think, is that some version of the spores-thru-space theory must be true….but scientists are very cautious about mentioning “panspermia”. The term is still heavily ridiculed and the connection to Eurpoa is never explicitly made. I wonder how long it will be before the next age of enlightenment.

  13. Laszlo brings up huge points. The basic problem comes down to an energy source of fuel. Something can begin, but without food it isn’t going to fully develop. On earth we had the Sun in close proximity to provide the energy and fuel source as well as a molten core which likes to vent towards the surface. On Titan the cold temperatures may be defeating any high molecular motivation, and the chances for life developing to the single cell level could be far away for Titan. Unless we can find some sort of energy source (ie volcano) within the moon itself.
    However, the abundance of carbon based molecules on Titan and verification of water on Mars is definitely a step in the right direction towards finding life in other areas of the cosmos.

  14. Lazlo mentions that Titan contains only small amounts of carbon. Atmospheric composition of Titan is 95% nitrogen, but 5% methane with traces of other hydrocarbons. The newly discovered lake are liquid ethane. Methane (CH3) & ethane(C2H5) are major sources of carbon. The press release states that at Titan’s surface temperature of -300F, nitrogen, methane & ethane could exist in both liquid & gaseous forms. Photodissociation & now lightning would appear to be natural energy sources to manipulate these chemical compounds into myriad hydrocarbons & more complex molecules, in response to Aodhhan’s post concerning energy sources. Also, tidal heating of Titan’s interior( think of Io’s volcanoes from tidal heating by Jupiter) may also supply another source of energy to help reactions along. It just seems like a lot of ingredients for complex chemistry to occur exist on Titan.

  15. This should increase the interest in a new, more robust science mission to Titan. With the time it takes to plan, implement, and get there…they need to get busy.
    C’mon world lets step up the pace.

    It may benefit humanity if we all work together on these science/discovery missions.

  16. You need a consistant and constant energy source. Something which is there breifly will not cut it. Lightning has the energy to create carbon, but not the consistancy or longevity to be considered a great energy source for the sustainment of life. Atmosphere and distance keeps the Sun from being a good source.

    Something else not mentioned is protection from radiation. Another problematic source for anything on the surface or near it; a hazard which comes from being near a large planet.
    I would be interested in really watching the surface a bit more; see what affect Saturn’s gravity has on the surface elements.

  17. “If electric sparks in an atmosphere are thought to be requirements for life, why are people so hyped on finding life in the oceans of Europa? There’s no lightning there or on the surface above the ice.”

    First, Europa may well have plenty of liquid water below its icy surface, and that would mean a biochemestry that’s far less speculative than something that would have to start in the methane/ethane lakes of Titan.

    Second, the Miller-Urey experiments have been reproduced, starting with not only electrical discharges, but heat, ultraviolet exposure and even simple mechanical sloshing of the water and starting elements.

    Any of thos energetic events must have happened many times in Europa’s history, espically from occasional ice-penetrating meteors and subatomic particles from the Jovian VanAllen belts in which Europa orbits. Not to mention the popssibility of something like Earth’s undersea ‘black smoker’ geothermal vents whose heat would come from the same tidal flexing of the moon by Jupiter that would keep it warm enough for liquid water to begin with (and makes Io positively volcanic).

  18. I think Aodhhan brings up a good point, namely the radiation field generated by Saturn. Both Cassini & Galileo ran the risk of frying their electronics if immersed in Saturn’s or Jupiter’s high energy radiation belts, so this is another serious variable to be considered with concern to Titan. Does anyone know where Titan’s orbit lies in relation to Saturn’s radiation belts?

  19. Can we escape the box of looking for carbon based life or assuming that if there’s life it can only be carbon based? There’s nothing that says all life in the universe will be carbon based, but there’s also nothing that says it won’t be. My thing is, what if there’s an outside chance that life on Titan is based on an element that we would never think it could be? What if there’s some nanomicrobial life forms on Mars that we can’t even see without having maybe an electron microscope and they are composed of an element that would be looked at in a very pedestrian manner?

  20. If I were running the show I would be setting my sights on Europa. Manned missions to Mars (for the time being) and robotic missions to Europa. If we really want to find signs of life in our system, I think that would be the place to look. And it should be a top priority if we are really serious about it. “Follow the water” as they say. This time, I tend to agree. Is there water on Mars? Yep, appears to be some but it all seems to be frozen. May find signs of past life, or the necessary minimal components to sustain life for future colonization…. Maybe.. Is there water on Titan? Hmm…… Maybe not.. Is there water on Europa? Yep, appears to be a vast abundance of it.. Possibly even an ocean of liquid (H2O) under the surface. It is one thing to explore worlds to learn about them, but it is another if our priority is to look for signs of life. In our solar system, I am convinced that Europa is the place to look. Then Callisto and Ganymede…
    Titan: Interesting to study, to learn about, but…well…
    I think that if we ever do find actual (living) life in our system, we will find it on Europa. If we are lucky enough to find life in our system.. Could some day find it on a comet, I suppose.. Anyway, Europa is what we need to focus on if our priority is to find signs of life… And we would have a mission well underway right now…… if I was running the show..

  21. The storms are caused by the Titans’ experiments with transmitting energy via Tesla towers.

  22. “This is what makes Titan special, it has a thick atmosphere, something that is not observed on any other natural satellite in the Solar System.”

    Is this in contrast to the “non-natural satellites” with thick atmospheres in our solar system? Like the one built by the Dark Lord of the Sith, His Badassity, Darth Vader?

    Does it count if the atmosphere is contained within the structure of the satellite?

    I’m pretty sure the Death Star has electrical activity.

  23. Frank Glover – thanks for the clarification. I probably misinterpreted the article when it said: “Titan experiences electrical activity in its atmosphere. Now Titan has all the necessary components for life; it has an atmosphere with electrical activity, increasing the opportunity for prebiotic organic compounds to form, thus increasing the possibility for life to evolve.”

    So basically any energy source is sufficient – I didn’t know that. Thanks.

  24. And I’m still for thoroughly exploring Mars first – I probably won’t live long enough to see a serious effort be made to design, build, launch, and land a functional device on Europa to drill through the ice and reach the liquid water. And then, if I do, my blood pressure will shoot up and I’ll have a heart attack when NASA announces they discovered water – something we know now, right?

  25. Titan may or may not have native dna, but it and Mars both have the resources that can sustain current human life. We must get off of this rock.

  26. If they do discover life, we need to start producing a plan to eradicate that life. Any threat to the human race, whether local or alien, must be dealt with quickly and effectively if we are to survive as a space faring species.

  27. @ Eric Near Buffalo
    We need to find forms of life that are similar to ours so we can see them and study them. Remember , we depend heavily on our 5 senses , and who knows how many forms of “senses” are in the whole universe. With so many different enviroments , there must be some very different forms of “life” in our universe (or universes), and what use there is to try and find them if we cant see them.
    Btw sry for my english

  28. If there liquid water on titan then that means that there could be life on it in the future.

    SO COOL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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