Finding life on other planets has always been tantalizing to scientists and science fiction fans alike. But the idea of finding life on planets within our own solar system has long been given up as unlikely. Recent discoveries, however, have led scientists to believe that there may actually be a possibility of finding other life within our solar system— and it may be closer than we think.
NASA’s new mission
The mission announced by NASA just last month is the next step of the New Frontiers program, which has sent probes in previous years to Pluto and Jupiter. This new “Dragonfly” mission is set to launch in 2026, still some time away, but won’t reach Saturn until some time in 2034 because of how far away we are from the Ringed Planet. More specifically, the probe will not be heading to Saturn proper, but will instead be circling and collecting data on one of Saturn’s moons, Titan. The probe itself is about ten feet long, approximately the same size as the Mars Rover, and will hopefully be visiting an impact crater on Titan’s surface.
While exploring Saturn’s moon, Titan, might be interesting enough in and of itself as a random exploratory mission, there’s a reason that NASA selected this particular moon for their next New Frontiers mission probe. First of all, this moon is special because it’s the only moon in our solar system to have an atmosphere— an atmosphere so thick, in fact, that scientists have trouble seeing through it to the moon’s surface. Data provided from earlier missions (like the Cassini mission that flew by Titan on its way to Saturn before the mission ended in 2017) and research from telescopes here on earth have also revealed the potential for the creation of organic molecules (composed of vinyl cyanide) which could, in turn, create cell-like membranes.
The vinyl cyanide molecule might sound like a new brand of poison ready to bring death, but luckily for Titan, its methane and ethane rivers and lakes form the perfect environment for vinyl cyanide molecules to link together to form those cell-like membranes, not unlike the process of life creation here on Earth. One scientist noted that the processes are pretty analogous, giving hope to the scientific community that life might be able to find a way on Titan.
As if that wasn’t enough, scientists have stated that the general atmosphere on Titan isn’t that much different than the atmosphere here on Earth was before life evolved on our home planet. If life found a way here, what’s to say that life won’t find a way on Titan, too?
Could human life evolve on Titan?
The wildest hopes of our science-fiction-loving hearts might be running wild, but, sadly, no, human life (or anything likely akin to it) probably won’t evolve on Saturn’s moon. With an atmosphere that gives it the same pressure that we might feel at the bottom of a swimming pool and a frigid temperature of negative 290 degrees Fahrenheit, Titan’s surface offers a challenging environment at best for struggling and emerging life forms.
Scientists are excited about the upcoming Dragonfly mission, hoping to learn even more about the mysterious moon that, while so vastly different from our own home planet, simultaneously shares a great number of similarities that could lead to life. There is hope for what one scientist calls the “outer limits of life”—that is, life that could evolve and survive in lakes of liquid methane, or elsewhere on Titan’s currently (presumably) barren surface.
Human life may not be sustainable on Titan, but other life could be.