A vast underground ocean has been detected on the most Earth-like world in the solar system – and a leading expert believes it could be teeming with alien life.
The sea of water and ammonia lies around 100km (60 miles) beneath the surface of Titan, the largest moon orbiting the ringed planet Saturn. So could heat from its centre have kick-started primitive life?
The UK’s top Titan scientist, Professor John Zarnecki, told Skymania News today: “We know that Titan is swimming in organic chemicals.
“There has got to be some energy down there and it would not take much energy to allow life to begin.
“We suspected there might be an ocean beneath Titan and the new data is very exciting. It is now very hard for there not to be an ocean.”
Rivers and lakes of methane have already been found on Titan and it rains from the orange atmosphere which is the densest known in the solar system after our own.
Astronomers say Titan resembles a young Earth and the ingredients are there for carbon-based life to form. But it had been thought too cold for there to be any life there yet.
Now, however, the discovery of the deep ocean changes everything. It is invisible but Nasa’s Cassini spaceprobe discovered overwhelming evidence that the sea exists.
Space scientists had used the probe’s radar to pinpoint the locations of 50 surface features on Titan including lakes, canyons and mountains. Over a few months, these features were found to have moved by up to 19 miles.
The experts deduce that this means the surface crust of Tian is separated from its core by the underground ocean.
Professor Zarnecki, of the Open University at Milton Keynes, was in charge of experiments when a probe called Huygens detached from Cassini and successfully parachuted to a landing on Titan in January 2005.
He said he believed that life on Titan could resemble the extremophiles – bugs that have been found in the most inhospitable places on Earth including boiling ocean vents and radioactive environments.
Professor Zarnecki is working on plans for more missions to Titan to send balloons flying through its atmosphere and surface rovers. He believes we will one day explorers will even manage to reach the underground ocean – although not in his lifetime.
Picture: A Nasa artist’s cutaway of Titan, with Saturn visible in the distance.
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