content long 25-September-2018 10:47:27

Winners Italy

16-18 years old: The lakes of Titan

 Author: Thomas Gigante

A scientist called Titan “ past Earth in a fridge”. The present Earth is not in a good shape – lack of clean drinking water, degradation of the earth`s surface, air pollution...the list goes on. For this reason I believe one of the main aims of my generation is to find an alternative, which could not only possibly sustain human life but also help us to understand how life evolved and our own planet can be maintained as a sustainable system.

For the following reasons, the exploration of Titan is the most useful target for mankind. Although it is debatable whether Titan is inhabitable or not, its unique characteristics are worth examining in greater depth. Firstly, it is the only `planet` which has a dense atmosphere, rich in organics, similar to the Earth`s. It consists of two gases, methane and nitrogen, which are necessary ingredients for the formation of organic compound. If the organic molecules could be identified, we would be able to consider the existence of life forms on Titan. This would probably be a very different from all forms we know but proving its existence would enable us to compare our biochemistry with another life system. The Huygens probe found a flux of hydrogen in Titan`s surface, a sign that a life form could be using hydrogen in the same way we use oxygen.

Secondly, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide are present in Titan`s atmosphere which have led scientists to consider the existence of water on Titan`s surface. Although Titan is extremely cold so water only exists in solid form, long lasting craters of liquid water should not be excluded. Moreover, it has been suggested that there could be a subsurface methane ocean on Titan, which replenishes and circulates methane as well as storing it.

Thirdly, it is interesting to speculate if form of life already lives on Titan. The lakes of liquid methane and ethane on its surface – similar visually to lakes on Earth- might harbor living cells, however different from life on Earth. We already know that this methane has an evaporation/condensation/rain cycle and it would be interesting to understand whether this cycle sustains life in the lakes, as our rain water cycle does on Earth. Understanding the origin and evolution of lakes on Titan could help us combat deglaciation and increasingly difficult water habitats.

Finally, as far as living there is concerned, Titan looks similar to the Earth: it has mountains and rock ( solid ice) cloud formations and it has seasons. However, it is very different mainly because of the intense cold. Its gravity is not so different from ours and it does have a liquid which is another characteristic for life forming systems. However, methane is not water.

The Cassini-Huygens mission did not have potential habitability as its objectives, but it laid the groundwork for further investigation into possible life forms so I strongly believe that a further mission to develop these hypotheses is the most useful target for my generation.

Last Update: 19 May 2017

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