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The Sunday Times: ‘Earth No 2’ lies in deep freeze waiting to be born

February 17, 2008
Jonathan Leake
Science Editor

TITAN, the deep-frozen moon of Saturn, is emerging as the most likely place in the solar system for new life to evolve, according to scientists who have been studying its atmosphere and surface chemistry.

They found that Titan’s atmosphere is drenched in a wide range of complex organic molecules very similar to those that gave rise to life on Earth billions of years ago.

Although it is far too cold for life at present, this is likely to change because stars such as the sun expand and grow far hotter as they reach old age.

“About 4-5 billion years from now Earth will have been engulfed by the sun but the frozen outer planets are likely to be much warmer, including Titan,” said Professor Andrew Coates, of University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory.

“The organic chemistry on its surface is already very similar to what we think existed on Earth before life developed. When it gets warmer, life will have a good chance to get going,” he said.

The new insights into Titan, the largest of Saturn’s 22 known satellites, stem from the torrents of data being sent back from the Saturn system by the Cassini probe, which arrived there in 2004 and is still in orbit. In 2005 it also released the Huygens probe which parachuted onto Titan’s surface.

The results have been undergoing detailed analysis ever since and make it ever clearer that the conditions on Titan have many similarities to those on the primordial Earth. In particular, they showed that the atmosphere, which had the appearance of a thick yellow smog, was made up of clouds of methane and nitrogen, while on the surface lay great lakes of hydrocarbons, rich in the kind of organic molecules needed to kick-start life.

The conditions are unlike those on Mars, the next planet to Earth moving out in the solar system, which is now thought to be “too salty” to sustain life because of a high concentration of minerals in its water.

Last week leading planetary scientists from Europe and America gathered at the European Space Agency’s technical centre in Noordwijk, Holland, to examine the data and draw up plans to send a new mission to the Saturn system around 2016.

Coates, who was among them, said it was becoming clear that Titan was far more than a simple moon: for example, it is bigger than Mercury, the innermost planet of the solar system.

Athena Coustenis, a leading European planetary scientist who is pushing for a new mission to the Saturn system, will reveal details of the potential enterprise at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston today.

These will include sending a series of probes to Titan’s surface and releasing a hot air balloon that could float around in its atmosphere sending back data. She says in a paper: “The atmosphere of Titan is one of the most favourable atmospheres for prebiotic [life] synthesis.”

Titan was discovered in 1655 by Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch astronomer, but was only realised to have a dense atmosphere in the 1940s. That prompted Arthur C Clarke, the science fiction writer, to use it as a setting for his 1976 novel Imperial Earth, in which he depicted Titan as a kind of futuristic Saudi Arabia.

Cafe where the sharks hang out

– Great white sharks, renowned as solitary predators, may also have a sociable side. Research released at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) by Salvador Jorgensen, of Stanford University’s Hopkins marine station, shows they hold “annual meetings”, congregating in thousands deep under the sea.

In winter, sharks leave seal colonies, where they feed all summer, and set off for warmer waters. One site between Hawaii and Mexico attracts so many it has become known as “the white shark cafe”.

– Pollutants released by burning fossil fuels may contribute to rising heart disease. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has found they can enter the bloodstream when inhaled and interfere with the workings of the heart.

The impact of the chemicals – polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – has been overlooked as they appeared to have none of the links with cancer found in other pollutants.

– Lord Oxburgh, former chairman of Shell, has warned that production and use of fossil fuels is causing “serious environmental damage”. In a seminar on biofuels at the AAAS, he said carbon dioxide emissions had to be cut.

“It is now dawning on us that we have been contentedly sawing off the branch of the tree of life on which our civilisation is sitting,” he said.

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/science/article3382174.ece

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