Huygens touches down on Titan

Despite lack of life on Saturn's moon, astrobiologists could gain much from mission

Sam Jaffe(sjaffe@samjaffe.com)
Jan 16, 2005

While astronomers, geologists, and physicists breathlessly await the results of the experiments performed on the European Space Agency's (ESA) Huygens space probe, which plummeted through the atmosphere of the Saturnian moon Titan on Friday (January 14), astrobiologists might have the most to learn.

Although no one expects life to exist at -180 degrees Celsius (-280 degrees Fahrenheit) on Titan, the moon promises to be a treasure trove for the study of organic chemistry outside of Earth. "Titan is a planet-sized Miller–Urey experiment in progress for a hundred million years," Christopher Chyba, who holds the Carl Sagan Chair at the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI), told The Scientist, referring to the 1950s experiment in which compounds thought to be the building blocks of life were placed into a beaker and stimulated with electricity.

Since 1944, when Gerard Kuiper first determined that Titan had a thick, methane-filled atmosphere,...

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