NASA's close-to-end spacecraft - Cassini, which is now inching closer to it grand finale, has successfully tracked down a particular type of negatively-charged particle on the misty moon of Saturn - Titan - a breakthrough has raised hope for the building blocks of life on barren orb Titan.
Scientists believe that vinyl cyanide will be able to form stable and flexible cell membrane-like structures under Titan's harsh conditions.
"The presence of vinyl cyanide in an environment with liquid methane suggests the intriguing possibility of chemical processes that are analogous to those important for life on Earth", said Maureen Palmer, lead study author and researcher at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
Now scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announce that they have definitively detected acrylonitrile in Titan's atmosphere with the help of date from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) located in Chile.
The cells of Earth's plants and animals would not hold up well on Titan, where surface temperatures average minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 179 degrees Celsius), and lakes brim with liquid methane.
Conditions on Titan are not conducive to the formation of life as we know it.
Its atmospheric pressure is 60% greater than Earth's, meaning it exerts the kind of pressure you feel at the bottom of a swimming pool, according to NASA. Instead, researchers modeled how vinyl cyanide might fall into the methane oceans and form cellular membranes, a hypothetical foundation for life there. If that's hard to imagine, think of the vinyl cyanide membrane as something similar to the human skin which keeps all the parts that make us human - and alive - inside our bodies and protects them from the outside world.
Cassini's plasma spectrometer instrument captured the particles as it flew through the upper atmosphere of Titan.
Natural color image from Cassini spacecraft, showing haze layers in Titan's upper atmosphere, where methane molecules are being broken apart by solar ultraviolet light. The researchers said that these could possibly join together in sheets to form hollow spheres they dubbed azotosomes.
"If membrane-like structures could be formed by vinyl cyanide, it would be an important step on the pathway to life on Titan".
The scientists estimate it is most abundant in the stratosphere, at about 125 miles up. The chemical eventually makes its way to the cold lower atmosphere, where it condenses and rains on the surface.
Utilizing the new information, the group figured how much material could be saved in Titan's second-biggest lake, Ligeia Mare.
"That's compared to roughly a million bacteria per milliliter of coastal ocean water on Earth".
'The location of this subtle, astrobiologically important synthetic is energizing for researchers who are anxious to decide whether life could create on frosty universes, for example, Titan, ' said Goddard researcher Martin Cordiner, senior creator on the paper.
"These inspiring results from Cassini show the importance of tracing the journey from small to large chemical species in order to understand how complex organic molecules are produced in an early Earth-like atmosphere", adds Nicolas Altobelli, ESA's Cassini-Huygens project scientist.