Scientists say there may be crystals on Titan that could provide food for some forms of alien life, according to a study published in the journal ACS Earth and Space Chemistry.
Known as “co-crystals”, they are thought to be the result of ammonia and acetylene creating a salt-like compound, caused by Titan’s methane rain and ethane flooding.
Co-crystals are basically salts that are made of two or more molecular compounds. This allows for some unique properties, such as a different melting point to the original compounds. However, there is some disagreement over what exactly one is.
“It’s used mostly to denote solid compounds of two or more molecules or ions where the bonding is a bit loose, so the components retain their identities,” Jonathan Lunine of Cornell University in New York, who was not involved in the study, told New Scientist.
“While we have little if any info on this type of chemistry, the introduction of ammonia is bound to make it more interesting for prebiotic – or exotic biotic – chemistry,” he added.
The importance of these co-crystals is that they could provide food on Titan’s surface for microbial life. Some composed of benzene and ethane have been proposed before, but this new type of co-crystal forms more quickly and should be able to survive Titan’s weather.
"These co-crystals, or ‘organic minerals’, are an exciting new class of compounds for Titan’s surface," Morgan Cable from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the study's lead author, told IFLScience.
The crystals would be extremely small, just a few microns in size - which is smaller than the width of human hair. They may grow larger under the right conditions, with Cable noting they could look like fresh snow. What's more, they could be food for certain types of microbes.
Titan has been a bit of a hot topic lately, with NASA currently considering sending a quadcopter to the surface, flying over the ground to study dozens of sites – including the moon’s lakes and seas of liquid hydrocarbons. It would launch in 2025 and arrive in 2034.
A recent study also found that Titan’s oceans may be suitable for a submarine at some point in future. Replicating the temperature and pressure of Titan in the lab, they found that despite the tough conditions, we could feasibly explore these regions.
Titan is the only place other than Earth with known bodies of liquid on its surface. Coupled with its thick atmosphere, it looks like quite an enticing environment for life in one form or another. Whether it’s truly habitable we might not know for a while, but perhaps these crystals on the surface could help play a part.