Researchers have long hypothesized that Saturn's moon Titan could have acrylonitrile, or vinyl cyanide, in its atmosphere but no scientist has ever detected the chemical unambiguously.
Now scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announce that they have definitively detected acrylonitrile in Titan's atmosphere with the help of date from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) located in Chile.
"We found convincing evidence that acrylonitrile is present in Titan's atmosphere, and we think a significant supply of this raw material reaches the surface," Goddard Space Flight Center researcher and lead author Maureen Palmer said.
Palmer and her team of researchers involved in the discovery announced their findings on July 28 in a paper published in the journal Science Advances.
Why Is Acrylonitrile Presence Exciting?
There is still much that scientists don't understand about Titan but one thing they do know is that Saturn's moon seems to mirror the atmosphere of Earth before there was oxygen. For scientists, this means Titan could become habitable like Earth given the right chemical reactions, but there has to be a molecule that could trigger complex chemical reactions present in the atmosphere for it to happen.
This is where vinyl cyanide comes in.
Scientists believe that vinyl cyanide will be able to form stable and flexible cell membrane-like structures under Titan's harsh conditions. If that's hard to imagine, think of the vinyl cyanide membrane as something similar to the human skin which keeps all the parts that make us human — and alive — inside our bodies and protects them from the outside world. Without our skin, we could all just be a bunch of molecules unable to form our skeletons and organs, but with everything safely inside the skin, we exist as human beings.
The confirmation of the presence of acrylonitrile in Titan's atmosphere now sheds a little bit of light on the question of habitability for the moon because, now, scientists have an idea that a protective layer could form and allow molecules to interact chemically inside it, leading to the production of something more complex.
"The detection of this elusive, astrobiologically relevant chemical is exciting for scientists who are eager to determine if life could develop on icy worlds such as Titan," Goddard scientist and senior author Martin Cordiner said.
But Wait, There's More!
In a separate study, scientists from University College London also found carbon chain anions in Titan's hazy atmosphere using Cassini's plasma spectrometer.
The find was incredibly surprising for scientists because carbon chain anions shouldn't last long given Titan's harsh atmosphere. These chains are also what scientists believe to be the basis of early Earth life forms, which means Titan gets another point for "habitability."
"We have made the first unambiguous identification of carbon chain anions in a planet-like atmosphere, which we believe are a vital stepping-stone in the production line of growing bigger, and more complex organic molecules, such as the moon's large haze particles," lead author Ravi Desai said.
Scientists now wonder whether exoplanets with similar atmospheres to Titan could also be experiencing the same life-building process.
That is not to say we will see aliens come into being because, if Titan has pre-habitable Earth atmosphere, then it may also take millions of years before similar chemical reactions take place. Then again, Titan's atmosphere is so hazy, it may already be happening and we just can't see it yet.