Did NASA Discover Life in the Saturnian System?

Um, no.

NASA put out this press release, which inspired a blogger to post some speculation based on the credentials of the participants in the press conference:

if I had to guess at what NASA is going to reveal on Thursday, I’d say that they’ve discovered arsenic on Titan and maybe even detected chemical evidence of bacteria utilizing it for photosynthesis

–and the Internet went wild with the announcement that NASA had found life on one of Saturn’s moons, including an Atlanta newspaper. Of course, nowhere in NASA’s press release did they say anything about Saturn or Saturn’s moons, but feh! Who cares about what the primary sources say. Speculation is fact!

My guess? There has been some kind of study or experiment that shows how life could evolve based on a different chemistry than familiar Earth life, and that that chemical environment may exist (or have existed) elsewhere in the Solar System. The point of such a finding would be that we’d have to make sure any future astrobiology studies don’t just look for life as we know it – that they include the new chemistries. But that’s only my guess.

If NASA had discovered life, don’t you think the press release for the upcoming news conference would be front and center on NASA.gov, and that the list of panelists would include names like Bolden, Garver, Holdren, or Obama?

2 thoughts on “Did NASA Discover Life in the Saturnian System?”

  1. Shelley sent me the NASA link about the press conference, and I also guessed it would be about Titan…but not that it would be about the definitive “discovery of life.” If it is about Titan, I’m not actually expecting to hear much more than has already been coming out steadily over the last few months.

    That’s not to say it won’t be exciting if they do just that. The science coming out of Titan recently has been absolutely fascinating and tantalizing…and often misrepresented by the media. They have loved to publish “scientists find evidence of life on Titan!” The reality is of course closer to “scientists have discovered interesting irregularities from what we expected Titan’s atmosphere to be like, and one POSSIBLE explanation would be biological processes, but it’s more likely we just haven’t found the abiotic process at play.”

    Trying to figure out that chemistry is pretty close to what I want to eventually be doing as a career, so I’ve been following it as close as I can without comprehensive journal access. I’ve actually found the news coming out of Titan in the last year much more interesting than that out of Europa.

    As for the idea of astrobiologists looking for life in ways we don’t currently know it, that’s been steadily increasing over the last few years as well. One of the reasons why the Titan results are of interest is because the acetylene we expected to be there, and wasn’t in anywhere near the predicted levels, is thought to represent a possible source of energy for “methane based life” (oh how I hate that term).

  2. Yeah, there’s always been anomalously high amounts of methane in Titan’s atmosphere, as it should break down in sunlight much faster than the lifetime of the solar system. So some scientists have speculated about life based on some ethane/methane chemistry for a while, and Titan’s methane remains a puzzle. I don’t know if the methane is from Titanians exhaling, but it sure would be exciting!

    Titan and Europa are great places for thinking about “life as we don’t know it.” Richard Greenberg has put out some papers on Europa in which he speculates about life that extracts energy from Jupiter’s magnetic field or tides. There are some pretty cool possibilities out there! You’ll definitely have a great time trying to puzzle it all out.

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