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Investigation into the Importance of Titan.

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Nicholas Everitt                 W1418997                 S103   ECA

Investigation into the Importance of Titan

Nick Everitt

        In 2005 the Cassini spacecraft is due to release the Huygens probe, which, if all goes to plan, will descend through the atmosphere of Titan to its surface, taking measurements along the way1. The results of these measurements, along with any taken on the surface if Huygens survives impact, will be eagerly awaited by the scientific community back on Earth, for it is hoped that conditions on Titan may give clues to the emergence of life on Earth and may even point towards the development of life on Titan.

        What causes Titan, the largest satellite of Saturn, to be the subject of  such intense scrutiny is its resemblance to the early Earth. It is known that the Earth was formed around 4.5 billion years ago and it is speculated that the earliest detectable life forms existed at least four billion years ago2, so it can be reasonably assumed that the very early events in the history of the planet hold the key to the origin of life.

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3. This is a crucial point because all known life requires liquid water as a solvent. However, this does not discount the existence of a different form of biochemistry, as yet unknown, on other worlds. Carl Sagan, for instance, has speculated that on extremely cold worlds where water is frozen, liquid ammonia may act as the necessary solvent.4 In any event, since the Universe is cooling, there would probably have been a time when a younger Titan was home to liquid water.

        Life is believed to have developed through a process of chemical evolution., whereby simple building blocks such as amino acids were able to develop, either in the atmosphere or on the ocean surface, through the energy provided by UV radiation from the Sun and from the electrical energy of lightning. Polymers are believed to have formed, largely based on hydrogen, carbon and oxygen. The problem, however, is that hydrolysis limits the length of self-condensing polymers, preventing the formation of RNA and DNA.

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        It would appear that Titan – the only body in the Solar System other than Earth to have a ‘thick’ nitrogen atmosphere – is one of the prime candidates for exploration and investigation into the development of the early Earth. Although it differs from Earth in many ways, there are also many crucial similarities and  in the Cassini spacecraft and Huygens probe it is hoped that some questions regarding the development of life may shortly begin to be answered.

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  1. European Space Agency

http://sci.esa.int/huygens  accessed 24 September 2003

  1. Woese, C.R. (1984) ‘The origin of life’, Carolina Biology Readers series, series editor J.J. Head, [p.5].
  1. Lorenz, R. and  Mitton, J. (2002) ‘Lifting Titan’s Veil: Exploring the giant moon of Saturn’, Cambridge University press [p.16].

4.    Sagan, C. (1994) ‘The search for extraterrestrial life’, Scientific American, 271 (4), p.71.

  1. Anon. (1996) ‘Nature’s feet of clay’, Chemistry in Britain, June, p.13.

6.    Hazen, R.M. (2001) ‘Life’s Rocky Start’, Scientific American, 284 (4), p.79.

7.    Bada, J.L. (1995) ‘Cold start’, The Sciences, May-June [p.13]

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