NASA scientists have discovered an extraordinary molecule in the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan. The molecule has never been detected in any other atmosphere in the solar system. The rare molecule is called cyclopropenyliden. It’s a simple carbon-based molecule that could be a precursor to more complex compounds that could form and feed possible life on Titan.
Cyclopropenyliden in the atmosphere of the moon was discovered using the ALMA radio observatory in Chile. The molecule is made of carbon and hydrogen and was discovered while scientists combed through a spectrum of unique light signatures collected by the telescope. The signatures were able to reveal the chemical makeup of Titan’s atmosphere using the energy its molecules emitted or absorbed.
Cyclopropenyliden has been discovered in pockets throughout the galaxy, but it’s discovery in an atmosphere was a surprise. It was a surprise because the molecule reacts easily with other molecules; it comes into contact with to form different species. Until now, astronomers had only discovered cyclopropenyliden in clouds of gas and dust that flow between star systems.
Those regions are too cold and diffuse to support many chemical reactions. Titan has a dense atmosphere, and this type of atmosphere is typically ripe with chemical activity. The chemical activity is a major reason scientists are interested in the moon and the reason it’s the destination of the Dragonfly mission in the future.
For now, it’s a mystery why cyclopropenyliden shows up in the atmosphere of Titan. Its presence makes Saturn’s moon unique in the solar system, and it’s expected to be a “treasure trove” of new molecules. Titan is the largest of Saturns 62 moons, and unlike other moons in the solar system, it has an atmosphere for times denser than the Earth’s, along with clouds, rain, lakes, and rivers. It even has an ocean under its surface made of salty water.