Saturn Moon May Explain Life's Start

PASADENA, Calif., Oct. 11 (UPI) — Chemical reactions in the atmosphere of Titan, a moon of Saturn, suggest life may spring out of thin air — and may have done so on Earth, researchers say.

Scientist at the University of Arizona simulated the chemistry of the distant moon’s atmosphere, where ultraviolet radiation from the sun striking its upper layers breaks apart molecules like methane and molecular nitrogen, reported Monday.

The experiment, using radio waves to mimic the solar radiation, produced amino acids and the nucleotide bases that make up DNA and RNA, the basic ingredients of life, UA researcher Sarah Horst said.

The findings suggest compounds capable of supporting life are produced in Titan’s atmosphere about 600 miles above surface.

Titan represents a frozen snapshot of the early Earth, many planetary scientists believe, so the study also suggests terrestrial life might have formed high above the planet rather than in a primordial soup on the surface, Horst says.

The compounds found in the experiment “are relatively simple precursor molecules to life, and so there are a lot of additional steps between such molecules and life itself, most of which will likely require a liquid, such as water or methane,” UA planetary scientist Jonathan Lunine, who was not part of the study, said.

However, he noted, molecules forming high in Titan’s atmosphere eventually rain down and end up in the moon’s lakes and seas of methane.

The findings were presented in Pasadena, Calif., last week at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences.

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