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NASA Space Science

Hints of Life Found On Saturn's Moon Titan 227

Calopteryx writes "New Scientist reports that in 2005, researchers predicted two potential signatures of life on Titan. Now, thanks to research done with the help of the Cassini spacecraft, both have been seen, although non-biological chemical reactions could also be behind the observations. NASA's writeup has further details: 'One key finding comes from a paper online now in the journal Icarus [abstract] that shows hydrogen molecules flowing down through Titan's atmosphere and disappearing at the surface. Another paper online now in the Journal of Geophysical Research maps hydrocarbons on the Titan surface and finds a lack of acetylene. This lack of acetylene is important because that chemical would likely be the best energy source for a methane-based life on Titan, said Chris McKay, an astrobiologist at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., who proposed a set of conditions necessary for this kind of methane-based life on Titan in 2005. One interpretation of the acetylene data is that the hydrocarbon is being consumed as food. But McKay said the flow of hydrogen is even more critical because all of their proposed mechanisms involved the consumption of hydrogen.'"
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Hints of Life Found On Saturn's Moon Titan

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  • Oh jeez (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Some.Net(Guy) ( 1733146 ) on Friday June 04, 2010 @02:10PM (#32461166) Homepage
    The worst thing that could possibly happen for any form of life anywhere would be its discovery by us.
  • I smell a novel... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by bunratty ( 545641 ) on Friday June 04, 2010 @02:13PM (#32461194)
    ...The Sirens of Titan.
  • by sznupi ( 719324 ) on Friday June 04, 2010 @02:13PM (#32461202) Homepage

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Titan_Mare_Explorer [wikipedia.org] (hopefully not postponed to be part of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Titan_Saturn_System_Mission [wikipedia.org] )

    Titan, and Saturn system generally, is a really big thing for our distant future. People like to imagine the colonisation of Jupiter system, but the radiation belts there make it not exactly feasible; only Callisto out of 4 big moons might be fine. Saturn doesn't have this problem; is still decently close and with huge system of moons.
    Discovery of life on Titan might of course complicate things...OTOH, with it (if any) being probably so vastly different, there's little risk of crosscontamination in either direction.

  • by dreamchaser ( 49529 ) on Friday June 04, 2010 @02:17PM (#32461268) Homepage Journal

    I think you misunderstand. The mechanisms that would cause life to consume the substances that are 'missing' are totally alien to life as we know it, but fit the model for methane based life very well. It could well be that there are non-biological chemical processes doing it, but the odds of it being from any contamination from Huygens is astronomically remote. Hugyens was also very, very carefully sterilized. Granted, a microbe or two might have made it to Titan, where it would most likely die rather than reproduce.

    I do see your point and we need to continue to be careful, but I see nothing in these findings that makes the Hugyens discussion at all relevant to this story.

  • Re:Oh jeez (Score:2, Insightful)

    by elrous0 ( 869638 ) * on Friday June 04, 2010 @02:19PM (#32461284)
    Nonense. If it weren't for us, many species (that probably deserve to) would probably have already went extinct. Does anyone think the Pandas would still be around if we weren't constantly working to try to get them to mate? It's taken more effort to get those things to reproduce than it took with Tom Cruise, for crying out loud. Seriously, if your species needs Viagra to stay viable, it's probably nature's way of saying your species just wasn't meant to be.
  • by butterflysrage ( 1066514 ) on Friday June 04, 2010 @02:20PM (#32461308)

    It would be fairly easy to tell earth based contamination from native stuff. For starters, I'm not aware of any bacterium that you would find on the surface of the earth that eats hydrocarbons in that way and can live in those conditions. Below the artic ice? maybe... but in a clean room in texas? not likely.

  • Re:Oh jeez (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Shakrai ( 717556 ) * on Friday June 04, 2010 @02:30PM (#32461454) Journal

    human beings have a propensity to violence.

    And that makes us different from the rest of the animal kingdom in what way?

  • by Vekseid ( 1528215 ) on Friday June 04, 2010 @02:32PM (#32461490) Homepage

    Breathing hydrogen basically works in the opposite direction of terrestrial biochemistry. The proposed organisms are breathing hydrogen and presumably fixing it to something (say, oxides they've eaten) rather than the other way around as for Earth life.

    And even if it was possible, Huygens could not have contaminated things to such a degree as to affect widespread atmospheric phenomenon.

  • Re:Oh jeez (Score:3, Insightful)

    by somersault ( 912633 ) on Friday June 04, 2010 @02:32PM (#32461500) Homepage Journal

    I think that any form of life that has to compete for resources would favour the evolution of a "propensity to violence".

  • Re:Oh jeez (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Locke2005 ( 849178 ) on Friday June 04, 2010 @02:36PM (#32461572)
    Sure, their reduction in number couldn't possibly have anything to do with the vast reduction in habitat caused by human activity! And their lack of hetero sex drive couldn't possibly be due to stresses caused by overcrowding and human activity, so siree! Just because pandas survived for millions of years before humans became so numerous in their vicinity doesn't imply any causal relationship between their precipitous decline and the corresponding rise in human population, it is obviously due to the fact that they are unfit to survive and destined to fail, it's just taken a few million years for the effect to kick in.
  • Re:Oh jeez (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MightyMartian ( 840721 ) on Friday June 04, 2010 @02:53PM (#32461860) Journal

    We are the only species that acts violently for no reason. What reason does a man have to randomly abuse or kill a woman? Look at bull fighting, or dog fighting. These are things that are human incarnations of violence for the purpose of entertainment. Animals act violently out of defense, for survival, or because of disease (rabies).

    First of all, I'd contest that violence has no reason. The reason may not be good (objectively or subjectively), but I'd say that only truly insane individuals become violent for no reason.

    Beyond that, there is at least one other species out there that appears to be nearly as violent as we are, and that's chimpanzees. They've been recorded attacking members of their own tribe, perhaps as punishment (though we can never be quite sure), beating them to death (I saw one harrowing attack on a documentary where they literally ripped the genitals off one). Violence is used by dominant members to put lower members in line. Most chilling of all are several documented cases of wild chimp tribes making war on neighboring tribes.

    You're doing what I'd call reverse-anthropomorphization, you're ascribing to humans certain behaviors which you insist must somehow be special from other animals. It's a form of special pleading, really. Suffice it to say humans use violence as means to an end, and at least some other species use it for the same reason.

  • Re:Oh jeez (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 04, 2010 @02:58PM (#32461922)

    What a lot of people don't seem to grasp is that any impact human beings have on another species in this manner is also part of nature. Many humans have a God complex in which they tend to separate themselves from the animal kingdom. While we may be capable of thought and reason, that is simply something that evolution has lent us over time. Any impact we make on the environment continues to be natural in its origins.

  • Re:Oh jeez (Score:4, Insightful)

    by sznupi ( 719324 ) on Friday June 04, 2010 @02:58PM (#32461924) Homepage

    We're in the middle of one of the most rapid extinction events in the history of this planet, generally speaking.

    Accidentally, it kicked in when we really got the hang of the place...

  • by camperdave ( 969942 ) on Friday June 04, 2010 @04:23PM (#32463238) Journal
    Life doesn't have to "get" there. If the chemistry is right, it will start itself.
  • Re:Oh jeez (Score:2, Insightful)

    by unr3a1 ( 1264666 ) on Friday June 04, 2010 @05:22PM (#32463950)

    You are correct in everything you say, but only in the basic form of comparison that you are using. Yes, every violent act is done for some reason or another, but because of our highly developed level of intelligence, we have a sense of right and wrong reasons.

    Few would say it's wrong to violently defend yourself if you are being assaulted in an alley or in your home. On the opposite side of the coin, few would say that it is right to violently "defend" yourself if someone accidentally stepped on your foot.

    Animals perceive things in a very basic way. Take this example:

    A few nights ago a couple of friends came over to my apartment for dinner and to hang out. One of them had a 14 month old baby. I have two cats, Suzy is very outgoing and sure of herself, and Molly on the other hand is a very much more nervous and easily scared. Both cats hid initially but as expected, Suzy came out to investigate who these new people were very quickly.

    As soon as the baby saw Suzy, he started to move over towards her. Now, being the first time that Suzy saw an infant, she didn't understand his behavior. So when the baby got close and was raising his hand towards her, Suzy started to back up while still facing him. Her ears went back, she was squinting, keeping her tail close to her body, and was backing up less and less.

    Now, knowing her, she would have only backed up to a certain point where she would then feel cornered. Even though she wasn't physically cornered, by her body language I could tell she was starting to feel that way. I immediately got between them, and Suzy ran straight into my bedroom, and I closed the door. Now lets look at the potential for that situation had I not gotten between the two.

    Suzy could have reacted in a defensive nature towards the baby and swiped at him. Would it have been her fault if she did swipe at him and scratch his face? No. Would it have been the baby's fault? No. Because neither one of them are at a level of rationalization or understanding to realize what the other is doing.

    The baby is just trying to pet her and isn't able to understand that she is behaving in a defensive manner, and Suzy doesn't understand that he is only trying to pet her. For all she knows, he could be attacking her. She also had never seen a baby before that, so she didn't really know even what he was.

    The difference is that the baby will grow up and learn what basic defensive gestures from animals looks like, and be able to make rational decisions with that information in animal encounters in the future.

    Suzy will always act defensively if even I were to make aggressive gestures towards her, regardless if I am really attacking her or not. Now of course, I will never attack my cat, but I am using it as an example.

    Sorry for the thesis (lol) but I hope it clarifies more what I am talking about.

  • by Patch86 ( 1465427 ) on Saturday June 05, 2010 @07:25PM (#32471766)

    That seems like an Occam-worthy assumption, yes.

    If you're like me (and most serious scientists, I gather) and believe life on Earth formed spontaneously, then it's reasonable enough to assume it can happen again. We have absolutely zero ideas how easy this is to happen, so there's no good reason to claim it can't be happening all the time.

    If you're of a spiritual persuasion and believe life was kick started by some ghost or other, then you'll probably have to admit that there's no reason your omnipotent-being-of-choice doesn't do the same thing on every planet that it'd work on. Most holy texts are scrupulously silent on the subject of extraterrestrial life, so we mortals are left to just guess.

    In short, it seems more likely that it'd happen again than not. And for all we know, Titan is paradise incarnate for methane-drinking, hydrogen breathing life.

Honesty is for the most part less profitable than dishonesty. -- Plato