Titan's large craters are prime locations for life, study says

A new study suggests that Titan's craters are prime locations for life.
By Tyler MacDonald | Jul 24, 2018
A new study suggests that the large craters on Saturn's largest moon, Titan, are the prime locations for the crucial elements of life.

Titan is an icy moon that is littered with organic molecules, including methane lakes surrounded by hazy atmospheres of methane and nitrogen. And using data and images from the Cassini spacecraft in combination with the Huygens probe, researchers believe that Titan's craters are the prime locations for the building blocks of life.

Morgan Cable, a technologist in the Instrument Systems Implementation and Concepts Section at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California, said that "when we mix tholins with liquid water we make amino acids really fast. So any place where there is liquid water on Titan's surface or near its surface could be generating the precursors to life biomolecules that would be important for life as we know it, and that's really exciting."

"Craters really emerged as the clear winner for three main reasons," said Catherine Neish, a planetary scientist specializing in impact cratering at the University of Western Ontario. "One, is that we're pretty sure there are craters on Titan.

"Cratering is a very common geologic process and we see circular features that are almost certainly craters on the surface," she said.

Not only that, but Neish says that craters are likely to generate more melt than cryovolcanos, which suggests that"they take longer to freeze so [the water] will stay liquid for longer." She also added that liquid water is crucial for the complex chemical reactions.

But David Grinspoon, a Senior Scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, is hesitant to jump at the results.

"We don't know where to search even with results like this," he said. "I wouldn't use it to guide our next mission to Titan. It's premature."

Grinspoon wants to instead examine more locations on Titan.

"Because there is so little that we actually know about the planet, it makes more sense to characterize a range of environments first," he said.

Regardless, the study is a step in the right direction on the search for life's building blocks in the frigid world of Titan.

The findings were published in Astrobiology.

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