Life on Titan? It stinks, says scientist

Posted by Emma Woollacott

If there really is life on saturn's moon Titan, it's likely to be smelly and explosive, according to astrobiologist William Bains.

"Hollywood would have problems with these aliens," says Dr Bains. "Beam one onto the Starship Enterprise and it would boil and then burst into flames, and the fumes would kill everyone in range. Even a tiny whiff of its breath would smell unbelievably horrible."

Dr Bains, who works with MIT and Rufus Scientific in Cambridge, UK,  is seeking to work out just how extreme the chemistry of life can be.

Titan presents an interesting scenario. It has a thick atmosphere of frozen, orange smog and a surface temperature of -180 degrees Celsius. Water is permanently frozen into ice and the only liquid available is liquid methane and ethane, which the Cassini/Huygens mission has shown is present in ponds and lakes on the surface of the moon.

"Life needs a liquid; even the driest desert plant on Earth needs water for its metabolism to work. So, if life were to exist on Titan, it must have blood based on liquid methane, not water.  That means its whole chemistry is radically different. The molecules must be made of a wider variety of elements than we use, but put together in smaller molecules. It would also be much more chemically reactive," said Dr Bains.

The solubility of chemicals in liquid methane is very limited, and strongly dependent on molecular weight. With a few exceptions, molecules with more than 6 heavy (non-hydrogen) atoms are essentially insoluble. So a metabolism running in liquid methane would have to be built of smaller molecules than terrestrial biochemistry.

Dr Bains explains, "Terrestrial life uses about 700 molecules, but to find the right 700 there is reason to suppose that you need to be able to make 10 million or more. The issue is not how many molecules you can make, but whether you can make the collection you need to assemble a metabolism.

"Thus the six-atom chemicals on Titan would have to include much more diverse bond types and probably more diverse elements, including sulphur and phosphorus in much more diverse and (to us) unstable forms, and other elements such as silicon."

Energy is another factor that would affect what life could evolve on Titan.  With sunlight a tenth of a percent as intense on Titan's surface as on the surface of Earth, energy is likely to be in short supply.

"Rapid movement or growth needs a lot of energy, so slow-growing, lichen-like organisms are possible in theory, but velociraptors are pretty much ruled out," said Bains.