Language Selection

English French German Italian Portuguese Spanish

Has Huygens found life on Titan?

Filed under

IF LIFE exists on Titan, Saturn's biggest moon, we could soon know about it - as long as it's the methane-spewing variety. The chemical signature of microbial life could be hidden in readings taken by the European Space Agency's Huygens probe when it landed on Titan in January.

Titan's atmosphere is about 5 per cent methane, and Chris McKay of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffet Field, California, thinks that some of it could be coming from methanogens, or methane-producing microbes. Now he and Heather Smith of the International Space University in Strasbourg, France, have worked out the likely diet of such organisms on Titan.

They think the microbes would breathe hydrogen rather than oxygen, and eat organic molecules drifting down from the upper atmosphere. They considered three available substances: acetylene, ethane and more complex organic gunk known as tholins. Ethane and tholins turn out to provide little more than the minimum energy requirements of methanogenic bacteria on Earth. The more tempting high-calorie option is acetylene, yielding six times as much energy per mole as either ethane or tholins.

McKay and Smith calculate that if methanogens are thriving on Titan, their breathing would deplete hydrogen levels near the surface to one-thousandth that of the rest of the atmosphere. Detecting this difference would be striking evidence for life, because no known non-biological process on Titan could affect hydrogen concentrations as much.

One hope for testing their idea rests with the data from an instrument on Huygens called the GCMS, which recorded Titan's chemical make-up as the probe descended. It will take time to analyse the raw data, partly because hydrogen's signal will have to be separated from those of other molecules. "Eventually, I hope, we will have numbers for at least upper limits for hydrogen," says Hasso Niemann of Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, principal investigator of the GCMS.

Acetylene could be easier to analyse, McKay says, and it too might betray life. "I would guess that there would be a similar fall-off of acetylene if the microbes are eating it." The work is to be published in the journal Icarus.

By Stephen Battersby

More in Tux Machines

Games: SteamOS, RimWorld, Yooka-Laylee, FTL: Faster Than Light, Pictopix, Red Strings Club

KDE: Reasons to Get Excited, Plasma Weather, Plasma on ARM and Qt on Mobile

  • Reasons to Get Excited about KDE in 2018
  • Three old Plasma Weather applet TODO items gone for Plasma 5.12
    Just when I thought to have missed yet another Plasma feature freeze deadline with the one for Plasma 5.12 LTS and thus a good(?) excuse to re-decrease priority of some planned work on the Plasma Addons Weather applet (from the kdeplasma-addons repo, not to be mixed up with clearmartin’s one from github/ once more and thus delay things even further to a day that may never come, the Plasma team found they need to shift the deadline by some weeks to be after the KDE Frameworks 5.42.0 release. So excuse gone, no other quickly found… time to do a git pull and open the editor.
  • Plasma on ARM: State of the Union
    For the past year at Blue Systems my colleagues and I have been working on getting Plasma 5 ready for ARMv8 systems such as the Pinebook. If you were at QtCon this year, you might have also seen our awesome team demo’ing these systems at the KDE booth along with Plasma on ARMv7 systems such as the ODROID C1.
  • Sharing Files on Android or iOS from or with your Qt App – Part 2

Today in Techrights


  • SLES 12 Toolchain Update Brings new Developer Tools
  • SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 12 Updates Its Developer Toolchain to GCC 7
    SUSE's Andreas Jaeger writes in a blog post about the updated toolchain of the SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 12 operating system and the new developer tools it brings. The article notes the fact that with the release of GNU Compiler Collection 7, the GCC team brought numerous improvements for developers, including better diagnostics, DWARF 5 support, as well as support for the C++ 17 standard. GCC 7 also contains improved optimization passes and takes advantage of some of the features of modern processors, and now it is available to all SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 12 customers with an active subscription.
  • Become a Google Summer of Code Mentor for openSUSE
    The application period for organizations wanting to participate in the Google Summer of Code is now and the openSUSE project is once again looking for mentors who are willing to put forth projects to mentor GSoC students.