There's some exciting—and potentially confusing—news coming out of the NASA's Cassini Saturn orbiter program. Two new papers have come out, both dealing with the possibility that alien life could be theoretically hanging out on Saturn's moon Titan.
This is the kind of research that easily sets hearts aflutter and space nerds to making high-pitched happy squealing sounds, so let's knock out one basic thing right off the bat: Nobody has discovered alien life. We have not found E.T. This is only a test of the emergency high-pitched happy squealing system.
That said, it probably wouldn't be remiss to clap your hands delightedly, like a little girl. As I said, nobody has found alien life, but they did find the sort of evidence that might suggest alien life is down there on the surface of Titan, waiting to be found. It's a little like walking up to a house and finding the front door open, and, inside, a T.V. stand that's missing a T.V. It's reasonable to assume the house might have been burglarized, but there are also other plausible explanations and you don't have enough evidence to know one way or the other.
It boils down to this: If you were observing the movement and composition of gases on Earth, you'd probably notice that oxygen has a tendency to "disappear" near our planet's surface. It's a tip-off that something is down here, breathing. Researchers have noticed a similar pattern on Titan, involving the disappearance of hydrogen at the moon's surface. At the same time, other researchers have also found a distinct lack of acetylene among the moon's natural hydrocarbons. Both these discoveries are important, because they fit with theoretical predictions made in 2005 about the kind of clues you'd find on a planet that was home to life forms that breathed hydrogen, ate acetylene and produced methane as a product of respiration the way we produce carbon dioxide.
Again, none of this is proof that Titan is teeming with weird life. But, if we want to find weird life, Titan may be a good place to start looking.
Let the inevitable "I, for one ..." jokes commence, anon!
- New Scientist: Hints of life found on Saturn moon
- Discovery News: Titan: Oasis for Life as we don't know it?
- Space.com: Strange discovery on Titan leads to speculation of alien life
- Cassini mission extended-
- Neat science video: Cassini-Huygens Titan Landing
- Cool Cassini Saturn science
- If alien life exists, we have probably weirded it out by now ...
- Protecting Earth and space from people
- ETs on Earth?
- Space archaeologists!
- Stephen Hawking warns of intergalactic "Stranger Danger"
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.