June 6th, 2010

far call, explore, space

2010: The Year We Make Contact?

Something is consuming hydrogen and methane on Saturn's moon, Titan.

This isn't as obvious, exciting, or definitive a "yes" as, say, an ancient city atop Olympus Mons, or giant tentacles pulling a space probe beneath the ice, and most people are going to react by saying, "aw, that could be anything".

And yes, it could be a lot of things.

But it's an anomaly. The concentrations of at least two chemicals are far from what we'd predict if only simple physical and chemical processes are involved. James Lovelock, before he got famous for his controversial Gaea Hypothesis, postulated that the best way to search for life would be to look for exactly that: "anomalous" concentrations of compounds, far from chemical equilibrium, that are nonetheless stable.

NASA scientists have been saying for years that Titan and a few other gas giant moons have "all the requirements" for methane-based life, if such a thing is possible. I've largely smiled, nodded, and moved on, because, up until now, it looked like the "perfect conditions" on the Outer Moons were at chemical equilibrium.

But now: missing hydrogen and acetylene.

As someone whose entire college curriculum was built around the application of systems theory to biology, that makes me sit up and take notice.