Odd carbon-based molecule found in atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan

Instead of oxygen in its atmosphere like Earth, Titan has small amounts of methane, much like the early stages of our home world.


The study of the universe is ever going and the further we go, the newer things we find. In recent research, scientists have found traces of a novel molecule in the atmosphere of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. This molecule has never been found in any other atmosphere and it is very rare, so much so that NASA says even many chemists won’t know about it. The simple carbon-based molecule is known as cyclopropenylidene, or C3H2 and can form the basis of many complex compounds which can lead to or help in forming life.

The molecule is made up of carbon and hydrogen, and its simple structure means that it can easily react with other chemical compounds. And this is why the molecule has never been found in any other atmosphere. The American space agency says that “astronomers have so far found C3H2 only in clouds of gas and dust that float between star systems — in other words, regions too cold and diffuse to facilitate many chemical reactions".

 Odd carbon-based molecule found in atmosphere of Saturns moon Titan

Cassini spacecraft catches a glimpse of bright sunlight reflecting off the hydrocarbon seas of Saturn's large moon Titan. Image: NASA

Researchers used a radio telescope observatory in northern Chile known as the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) to detect C3H2 from unique light signatures captured by the telescope. The molecule was present in small amounts in the upper layers of the moon’s atmosphere. This was most likely possible because there are fewer other gases for C3H2 to interact within the region.

Titan has emerged as one of the most similar celestial bodies to Earth. Not only does the giant moon have clouds, rain, lakes and rivers, it also has a dense atmosphere which is mostly made up of nitrogen. But instead of the presence of oxygen in its atmosphere like Earth, Titan has little amounts of methane, much like the early stages of our home world. Hence, experts believe that a closer inspection of Titan can reveal the conditions that existed on Earth some billion years ago, and also lead to the most sought after question: can Titan sustain life?

The study was published in the Astronomical Journal on 15 October.


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