This week, astrobiologists are discussing what ESA`s Huygens spaceprobe might discover when it parachutes to the surface of Saturn`s mysterious moon, Titan, in 2005. Titan possesses a rich atmosphere of organic molecules, which Huygens will analyse. Recently some scientists have begun to think that, by redefining life, in broader terms, what we may find on Titan may be life. If this is the case, it certainly will not be life as we know it...
Titan is an astrobiologist`s dream laboratory. Its atmosphere is composed of nitrogen and methane gas. Ultraviolet light from the Sun can break the methane molecules apart, leading to the formation of complex organic molecules by which scientists mean molecules containing carbon. Carbon compounds are the first step towards life, as we know it on Earth. Life, itself, is based on extremely complicated carbon molecules such as DNA. Some scientists believe the composition of Titan`s atmosphere closely resembles that of early Earth, before life began on our planet.
Huygens`s investigations may reveal how life began on Earth. Jean-Pierre Lebreton, ESA`s Project Scientist for Huygens says, "One of the key questions we hope to address is how complex the organic molecules have grown in Titan`s atmosphere."
However, organic molecules are still a long way from life itself. So, what defines life? What is the difference between the living and the non-living? Scientists are still unsure. No satisfactory definition has been found so far. Any attempt to define life`s characteristics either excludes some types of life or includes some inanimate objects. When looking for an appropriate definition of life, there is one property all scientists seem to agree on: all life needs energy to sustain its metabolism.
Jean-Pierre Lebreton | alfa
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