Cells are the building blocks for life as we know it. We've only found them on Earth, but researchers using the ALMA telescope in Chile recently detected material in the atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan which could form exotic cellular membranes.
But this wouldn't be life as we know it. On Titan, there's not enough water, and it's far too cold to build cell membranes out of fats like those on Earth. Instead, researchers modeled how vinyl cyanide might fall into the methane oceans and form cellular membranes, a hypothetical foundation for life there.
Data from the Cassini probe was our first clue that this compound might exist on Titan. Now, new modeling shows the conditions on the surface could be enough to sustain dense collections of organisms that run on carbon compounds instead of oxygen.
If anything is alive down there on the moon's surface, it could resemble the basic extremophiles of Earth. But you'd also need everything else that goes inside a cell membrane to create a viable organism — and even with research from probes and telescopes, we're not sure there's any of that on Titan.
Scientists are calling for new lab research to understand how reactions might play out on the surface of Titan — or maybe elsewhere. Better maps from the ALMA telescope might paint a more accurate picture of where the molecules are distributed — and where we might start looking more closely for signs of life.