NASA has been searching for extraterrestrial life since its inception, probing the corners of the Solar System in the hope of finding any current or former evidence. Many scientists, including Brian Cox, support the idea that a form of Martian life exists or has existed, most likely as microorganisms. However, the physics professor claimed during BBC series “The Planets” that a future event could make it possible for life to thrive on one of Saturn’s moons.
Titan was of great interest to NASA in the Eighties as its dense atmosphere made it difficult to determine what its surface may be like.
However, after sending the Huygens probe to take a closer look in 1997, NASA soon realised that its harsh conditions, including temperatures of -200C, meant it would be very difficult.
Despite this, Dr Cox revealed why they now believe alien life could one day flourish on Titan.
He explained: “The Cassini [satellite] remained in orbit around Saturn and a year after Huygens landed it flew high above Titan’s North Pole and discovered something seen nowhere else in the Solar System.
Brian Cox identified Saturn’s moon
Titan is one of Saturn’s moons in the depths of the Solar System
It might be a very different story if you warm Titan up
“Liquid pooling into not just one, but scores of great lakes.
“Cassini discovered lakes of liquid methane and Earth has a strange cold twin.
“What is also fascinating, and in fact tantalising, is that Titan has a complex chemistry and that chemistry is carbon chemistry – the chemistry of life.”
Dr Cox went on to explain how this chemistry could be make it possible for life on the moon.
He added: “So we have found molecules like hydrogen cyanide, which is the building block of animo acids, we found molecules called vinyl cyanide, which chemists and biologists speculate could form some sort of cell membranes.
“And so all the ingredients for life are present on Titan.
“Now, very few scientists think there will be life on Titan today – it is after all, -180C at the surface.
“But, because of the presence of all those ingredients, it might be a very different story if you warm Titan up.”
Dr Cox went on to explain how an event in roughly five-and-a-half million years could be the catalyst needed.
When the Sun comes to the end of its current life cycle, it will exit the main sequence and become a red giant, engulfing Mercury, Venus and possibly Earth too.
If the Sun explodes, heat will reach the depths of the Solar System
Brian Cox explained how this could see Titan warmed up
It is then expected to expand and double in size and power, meaning sunlight will reach the far corners of the Solar System.
Dr Cox explained how this could spark the start of something special for Titan.
He continued: “In the light of the old expanding Sun, the far reaches of the Solar System will receive more solar energy.
“Titan’s atmosphere will begin to warm.
“Mountains of ice will shrink and melt as temperatures rise, the frozen water they contain replacing the liquid methane.
“Mountains will become oceans of water and in a strange twist of fate, at the end of life of the Sun, the Solar System’s last ocean world will wake up to its own biological possibilities.”
Titan may not be the only moon with the potential to harvest life, either.
Today it emerged that NASA’s Hubble telescope had revealed Jupiter’s moon Europa’s smay be “more Earth-like than we though”.
Europa’s subsurface ocean harbours approximately twice as much water as all of Earth’s seas put together and US space agency NASA had believed sulphate salts dominated this watery world.
However, Hubble has detected the likely presence of sodium chloride on Europa’s frozen shell.
This sodium chloride, commonly known as table salt, probably emanates from the ocean.
This is a significant find, given the saltiness of Earth’s oceans primarily derives from sodium chloride too.