NASA Detects More Chemicals on Titan that are Essential to Life

Titan's atmosphere makes Saturn's largest moon look like a fuzzy orange ball in this natural-color view from the Cassini spacecraft. Cassini captured this image in 2012. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Saturn’s largest moon Titan may be the most fascinating piece of real-estate in the Solar System right now. Not surprising, given the fact that the moon’s dense atmosphere, rich organic environment and prebiotic chemistry are thought to be similar to Earth’s primordial atmosphere. As such, scientists believe that the moon could act as a sort of laboratory for studying the processes whereby chemical elements become the building blocks for life.

These studies have already led to a wealth of information, which included the recent discovery of “carbon chain anions” – which are thought to be building blocks for more complex molecules. And now, thanks to data from the the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, a team of NASA researchers have detected the presence of acrylonitrile, another chemical elements that could be the basis for life on that moon.

The study that details their findings – titled “ALMA detection and astrobiological potential of vinyl cyanide on Titan” – was published in the July 28th issue of the journal Science Advances. In it, the team explains how data from the ALMA array indicated that large quantities of acrylonitrile (C2H3CN) exist on Titan –  most likely within the moon’s stratosphere.

acrylonitrile
Acrylonitrile has been identified as a possible basis for cell membranes in liquid methane on Titan. Credit: Ben Mills/Paul Patton.

As Maureen Palmer, a researcher with the Goddard Center for Astrobiology and the lead author on the paper, indicated in a NASA press release: “We found convincing evidence that acrylonitrile is present in Titan’s atmosphere, and we think a significant supply of this raw material reaches the surface.”

Also known as vinyl cyanide, acrylonitrile is used here on Earth in the manufacture of plastics. In the past, it has been speculated that this compound could be present in Titan’s atmosphere. However, it was only recently that scientists became aware of the possibility that it be the basis for living creatures within Titan’s rich organic environment – with its steady supply of carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen.

This is based on a study that was conducted in 2015, where a team of Cornell scientists sought to determine if organic cells could form in Titan’s harsh environment. Given that the moon experiences average surface temperatures of -179 °C (-290 °F) and the atmosphere is predominantly nitrogen and hydrocarbons, lipid bilayer membranes (which are the foundation of life on Earth) could not survive there.

However, after conducting molecular simulations, the team determined that small organic nitrogen compounds would be capable of forming a sheet of material similar to a cell membrane. They also determined that these sheets could form hollow, microscopic spheres that they dubbed “azotosomes”, and that the best chemical candidate for this sheets would be acrylonitrile.

Artist concept of Methane-Ethane lakes on Titan (Credit: Copyright 2008 Karl Kofoed). Click for larger version.

Such a material would be capable of surviving in liquid methane and at extremely cold temperatures, and would therefore be the most likely basis for organic life on Titan. As Michael Mumma, the director of the Goddard Center for Astrobiology, explained:

“The ability to form a stable membrane to separate the internal environment from the external one is important because it provides a means to contain chemicals long enough to allow them to interact. If membrane-like structures could be formed by vinyl cyanide, it would be an important step on the pathway to life on Saturn’s moon Titan.”

For the sake of their study, the Goddard team combined 11 high-resolution data sets from ALMA, which they retrieved from an archive of observations that were used to calibrate the array. From the data, Palmer and her team determined that acrylonitrile is relatively abundant in Titan’s atmosphere, reaching concentrations of up to 2.8 parts per billion. They also determined that it would be most common in Titan’s upper atmosphere.

It is here that carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen could chemically bond from exposure to sunlight and energetic particles from Saturn’s magnetic field. Eventually, the acrylonitrile would make its way down through the cold atmosphere and condense to form rain droplets that would fall to the surface. The team also estimated how much of this material would accumulate in Ligeia Mare – Titan’s second-largest methane lake – over time.

Finally, they calculated that within every cubic centimeter (cm³) of its volume, Ligeia Mare could form as many as 10,000,000 azotosomes. That roughly ten times the amount of bacteria that exists in the waters along Earth’s coastal regions. As Martin Cordiner, one of the senior authors on the paper, indicated, these findings are certainly encouraging when it comes to the search for extra-terrestrial life in our Solar System.

“The detection of this elusive, astrobiologically relevant chemical is exciting for scientists who are eager to determine if life could develop on icy worlds such as Titan,” he said. “This finding adds an important piece to our understanding of the chemical complexity of the solar system.”

Granted, the study and the basis for its conclusions are quite speculative. But they do show that within certain established parameters, life could exist within our Solar System well-beyond the limits of our Sun’s “habitable zone”. This study could also have implications in the hunt for life in extrasolar systems. If scientists can say definitively that life does not need warmer temperatures and liquid water to exist, it opens up immense possibilities.

In the coming decades, several missions are expected to go to Titan, ranging from submarines that will explore its methane lakes to drones and aerial platforms that will study its atmosphere and surface. Already, it is expected that they will obtain valuable information about the formation of the Saturn system. But to also discover entirely new forms of life? That would truly be Earth-shattering!

Further Reading: NASA, Science Advances

ALMA Shows Off Baby Pictures… Baby Planets, That Is!

In a test of its new high resolution capabilities, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) is happily sharing some family snapshots with us. Astronomers manning the cameras have captured one of the best images so far of a newly-forming planet system gathering itself around a recently ignited star. Located about 450 light years from us in the constellation of Taurus, young HL Tau gathers material around it to hatch its planets and fascinate researchers.

Thanks to ALMA images, scientists have been able to witness stages of planetary formation which have been suspected, but never visually confirmed. This very young star is surrounded by several concentric rings of material which have neatly defined spacings. Is it possible these clearly marked gaps in the solar rubble disc could be where planets have started to gel?

“These features are almost certainly the result of young planet-like bodies that are being formed in the disk. This is surprising since HL Tau is no more than a million years old and such young stars are not expected to have large planetary bodies capable of producing the structures we see in this image,” said ALMA Deputy Director Stuartt Corder.

“When we first saw this image we were astounded at the spectacular level of detail. HL Tauri is no more than a million years old, yet already its disc appears to be full of forming planets. This one image alone will revolutionize theories of planet formation,” explained Catherine Vlahakis, ALMA Deputy Program Scientist and Lead Program Scientist for the ALMA Long Baseline Campaign.

Let’s take a look at what we understand about solar system formation…

Through repeated research, astronomers suspect that all stars are created when clouds of dust and gas succumb to gravity and collapse on themselves. As the star begins to evolve, the dust binds together – turning into “solar system soup” consisting of an array of different sized sand and rocks. This rubble eventually congeals into a thin disc surrounding the parent star and becomes home to newly formed asteroids, comets, and planets. As the planets collect material into themselves, their gravity re-shapes to structure of the disc which formed them. Like dragging a lawn sweeper over fallen leaves, these planets clear a path in their orbit and form gaps. Eventually their progress pulls the gas and dust into an even tighter and more clearly defined structure. Now ALMA has shown us what was once only a computer model. Everything we thought we knew about planetary formation is true and ALMA has proven it.

This is the sharpest image ever taken by ALMA — sharper than is routinely achieved in visible light with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. It shows the protoplanetary disc surrounding the young star HL Tauri. The observations reveal substructures within the disc that have never been seen before and even show the possible positions of planets forming in the dark patches within the system. In this picture the features seen in the HL Tauri system are labelled.  Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)
This is the sharpest image ever taken by ALMA — sharper than is routinely achieved in visible light with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. It shows the protoplanetary disc surrounding the young star HL Tauri. The observations reveal substructures within the disc that have never been seen before and even show the possible positions of planets forming in the dark patches within the system. In this picture the features seen in the HL Tauri system are labelled. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

“This new and unexpected result provides an incredible view of the process of planet formation. Such clarity is essential to understand how our own solar system came to be and how planets form throughout the universe,” said Tony Beasley, director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Charlottesville, Virginia, which manages ALMA operations for astronomers in North America.

“Most of what we know about planet formation today is based on theory. Images with this level of detail have up to now been relegated to computer simulations or artist’s impressions. This high resolution image of HL Tauri demonstrates what ALMA can achieve when it operates in its largest configuration and starts a new era in our exploration of the formation of stars and planets,” says Tim de Zeeuw, Director General of ESO.

The major reason astronomers have never seen this type of structure before is easy to envision. The very dust which creates the planetary disc around HL Tau also conceals it to visible light. Thanks to ALMA’s ability to “see” at much longer wavelengths, it can image what’s going on at the very heart of the cloud. “This is truly one of the most remarkable images ever seen at these wavelengths. The level of detail is so exquisite that it’s even more impressive than many optical images. The fact that we can see planets being born will help us understand not only how planets form around other stars but also the origin of our own solar system,” said NRAO astronomer Crystal Brogan.

How does ALMA do it? According to the research staff, its new high-resolution capabilities were achieved by spacing the antennas up to 15 kilometers apart. This baseline at millimeter wavelengths enabled a resolution of 35 milliarcseconds, which is equivalent to a penny as seen from more than 110 kilometers away. “Such a resolution can only be achieved with the long baseline capabilities of ALMA and provides astronomers with new information that is impossible to collect with any other facility, including the best optical observatories,” noted ALMA Director Pierre Cox.

This is a composite image of the young star HL Tauri and its surroundings using data from ALMA (enlarged in box at upper right) and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope (rest of the picture). This is the first ALMA image where the image sharpness exceeds that normally attained with Hubble.  Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)
This is a composite image of the young star HL Tauri and its surroundings using data from ALMA (enlarged in box at upper right) and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope (rest of the picture). This is the first ALMA image where the image sharpness exceeds that normally attained with Hubble. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

The long baselines spell success for the ALMA observations and are a tribute to all the technology and engineering that went into its construction. Future observations at ALMA’s longest possible baseline of 16 kilometers will mean even more detailed images – and an opportunity to further expand our knowledge of the Cosmos and its workings. “This observation illustrates the dramatic and important results that come from NSF supporting world-class instrumentation such as ALMA,” said Fleming Crim, the National Science Foundation assistant director for Mathematical and Physical Sciences. “ALMA is delivering on its enormous potential for revealing the distant universe and is playing a unique and transformational role in astronomy.”

Pass them baby pictures our way, Mama ALMA… We’re delighted to take a look!

Original Story Source: “Revolutionary ALMA Image Reveals Planetary Genesis” – ESO Press Release