Sunday, June 6, 2010

Titan's atmosphere oddity consistent with methane-based life

Titan's atmosphere oddity consistent with methane-based life: "

Something strange is afoot in the atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan, according to data sent back from the Cassini mission. Data returned from a spectrometer on Cassini indicates that there's a large flux of hydrogen in the moon's atmosphere, with the gas forming in the upper atmosphere and being removed from the atmosphere at Titan's surface. We don't currently know what process is ensuring its removal, but the amounts of hydrogen being taken out of the atmosphere are consistent with an earlier proposal of methane-based life.

Titan's atmosphere is rich in hydrocarbon compounds, and chemical changes in the upper atmosphere are driven by the arrival of ultraviolet light from the sun. One of the expected results of the UV exposure is the liberation of molecular hydrogen from methane via a process that produces more complex hydrocarbons. With little oxygen to react with, the molecular hydrogen should remain stable. Some of it will escape into space, but a new paper indicates that a substantial amount of that hydrogen migrates down through the atmosphere towards Titan's surface.

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