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Titan II

January 25, 2011

The atmosphere of Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, is cold, thick, and hazy. It's denser than Earth's atmosphere, and hundreds of degrees colder. It consists mainly of nitrogen -- the element that makes up most of Earth's atmosphere -- with a bit of methane and smatterings of other compounds.

Many of the more complicated molecules form a thick orange "smog" atop the atmosphere. It's zapped by radiation from the Sun and even from beyond the solar system.

Researchers from Arizona and France stirred up this brew of chemicals and energy in the laboratory. When they did, they produced some of the basic building blocks of life -- molecules that are used in DNA and RNA, as well as the two simplest amino acids.

But Arizona researcher Sarah Horst says that doesn't necessarily mean there's life on Titan.

HORST: Does this mean there's life on Titan? Probably not. If there was life on Titan, it most likely would use molecules that life on Earth does not use. You're talking about a very different temperature, which means chemistry's going to be different, you're talking about the lack of liquid water. Really, what we're interested in is using Titan as kind of a planetary-scale laboratory to understand how organic chemistry proceeds in an atmosphere so that we can learn about what processes may have occurred on early Earth or what processes may be going on in an extrasolar planet.

-- processes that could be creating the building blocks of life on other worlds.

More about Titan tomorrow.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010

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