New Scientist looks at the origins of life – which may be revealed by a ring-shaped molecule we just found on Saturn’s moon Titan:
The molecule is called cyclopropenylidene and is made up of three carbon atoms in a ring with two hydrogen atoms attached. Conor Nixon at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and his colleagues spotted it floating in Titan’s thick atmosphere using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile.
Finding this molecule on Titan was a surprise. It is extremely reactive – if it bumps into any other particles, it tends to be quick to chemically react with them to form new compounds. Because of this, it had previously only ever been seen in tenuous clouds of gas and dust in interstellar space. Somehow, it lasts in the upper layers of Titan’s skies.
Ring-shaped molecules like this tend to act as the building blocks of molecules necessary for life, such as DNA and RNA. “This is a really small building block, but you can build bigger and bigger things with it,” says Nixon. “I don’t think anyone necessarily believes that there’s microbes on Titan, but the fact that we can form complex molecules like this on Titan could help tell us things like how life got started on Earth.”
You can read more about the discovery here, at The Astronomical Journal.