The first Monday of the month is Molecular Monday, the day I write about my least favorite subject from school: chemistry.
I’d planned to write something about ammonia today. Ammonia might (might!) serve as a good substitute for water in some alien biochemistry.
But then I was reminded of something. Something important. Something I’m kicking myself for not covering before. So once again, let’s turn our attention to Saturn’s largest moon: Titan.
Making Acetylene on Titan
As we’ve discussed previously, methane gas and other chemicals break apart in Titan’s upper atmosphere. This allows carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and possibly other elements to recombine in new ways. The result is a mishmash of organic chemicals collectively refered to as tholins.
Tholins tend to be sticky, yucky, and orange. They slowly fall to Titan’s surface, covering the moon with sticky, yucky, orange sludge. One chemical in the tholin mix should be acetylene (C2H2). In fact, acetylene is a fairly simple molecule compared to the rest of the tholin gunk on Titan, so we should find lots of it.
But we don’t. We’ve detected little to no acetylene accumulation on Titan’s surface. Maybe this means there’s something wrong with our detection techniques. Or maybe some as-yet-unidentified chemical process breaks up acetylene molecules as they fall through Titan’s atmosphere.
Or maybe (maybe!) something eats the acetylene as soon as it touches the ground.
Eating Titan’s Acetylene
I first read about this a few years ago in Astrobiology: A Very Short Introduction. It came up again, in greater detail, in the book I’m currently reading: All These Worlds Are Yours. The case of Titan’s missing acetylene is a hot topic for astrobiologists.
There’s a rather simple chemical reaction that might (might!) explain what’s going on.
C2H2 + 3H2 –> 2CH4 + energy
That’s one acetylene molecule reacting with three hydrogen molecules to produce two methane molecules and some energy. The kind of energy that weird Titanian microorganisms could use to survive (maybe).
In my opinion, it still seems unlikely that life could have evolved on the surface of Titan, if only because liquid methane (Titan’s “water”) is not a good solvent for amino acids. But unlikely is not the same as impossible.
It’s worth noting at this point that a few other weird things are happening on Titan. Hydrogen gas seems to mysteriously disappear near Titan’s surface, and no one has adequately explained how Titan replenishes its atmospheric methane (all the methane should have turned into tholins by now).
If Titan does have an acetylene-eating, hydrogen-breathing microbe that expels methane as a waste product, that would conveniently solve three mysteries at once. I can’t help but think, though, that this might be a little too convenient to be true.