Floating ice on Saturn's moon Titan may harbour 'exotic life'

Saturn

NASA scientists have discovered blocks of hydrocarbon ice in seas and lakes on Saturn's moon Titan that may host exotic forms of life.

A new study by scientists on NASA's Cassini mission found that blocks of hydrocarbon ice might decorate the surface of existing lakes and seas of liquid hydrocarbon on Titan.

"One of the most intriguing questions about these lakes and seas is whether they might host an exotic form of life," said Jonathan Lunine of Cornell University, co-author of the study.

"And the formation of floating hydrocarbon ice will provide an opportunity for interesting chemistry along the boundary between liquid and solid, a boundary that may have been important in the origin of terrestrial life," Lunine said in a statement.

Titan is the only other body besides Earth in our solar system with stable bodies of liquid on its surface. While our planet's cycle of precipitation and evaporation involves water, Titan's cycle involves hydrocarbons like ethane and methane.

Ethane and methane are organic molecules, which scientists think can be building blocks for the more complex chemistry from which life arose.

Up to this point, Cassini scientists assumed that Titan lakes would not have floating ice, because solid methane is denser than liquid methane and would sink.

But the new model considers the interaction between the lakes and the atmosphere, resulting in different mixtures of compositions, pockets of nitrogen gas, and changes in temperature.

The result, scientists found, is that winter ice will float in Titan's methane-and-ethane-rich lakes and seas if the temperature is below the freezing point of methane - minus 297 degrees Fahrenheit (90.4 kelvins).

The scientists realised all the varieties of ice they considered would float if they were composed of at least 5 per cent "air," which is an average composition for young sea ice on Earth.

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