Chemistry Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences Dedman College Research Faculty News

Titan-in-a-Test-Tube: Earthbound Chemists Search for Alien Life

Discover Magazine
Originally Posted November 22, 2021

If all the worlds in our solar system entered an Earth impersonation contest, Titan would steal the show. Sure, human visitors to Saturn’s largest moon would die instantly without supplemental oxygen and protection against the cold — a frigid -290 degrees Fahrenheit — but the similarities shouldn’t be discounted. With a rich trove of organic molecules and weather patterns resembling our own, scientists consider Titan one of the likeliest harbors for extraterrestrial life.

The problem is, it lies just short of a billion miles away

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft did capture more than a decade of data on Titan while orbiting Saturn alongside it. And in 2026 the agency plans to launch a drone, called the Dragonfly, which will scour the moon’s surface for signs of chemical processes that could breathe life into inanimate material. That mission won’t land until 2034, however. 

In the meantime, a research team led by chemists at Southern Methodist University is studying those same processes here on Earth. In the decidedly non-celestial setting of a Dallas, Texas, laboratory, they’ve created what they call Titan-in-a-test-tube: the conditions of a remote, exotic world reproduced in a tiny glass cylinder. 

A Familiar Scene

Naturally, that’s no small task. Even Tomče Runčevski, the experiment’s principal investigator, doesn’t claim a perfect understanding of the environment. “It is incredibly difficult to mimic Titan,” he said at the fall meeting of the American Chemical Society, acknowledging that they don’t even know how many chemicals exist there. But, he added, “it’s better to start from something, and then to build on that.”

What we do know is that beneath the smoggy, orange haze that masks the world below, Titan is a wondrous place. It’s the only moon with a substantial atmosphere, which, like Earth’s, is composed mostly of nitrogen. It’s also the only other heavenly body of any kind known to sport liquid rivers, lakes and seas on its surface — though they obviously aren’t made of H2O, which freezes at temperatures well above those on Titan. “On Earth we have water,” Runčevski said. “On Titan, the same role of water is played by methane.” READ MORE