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Huygens Hits the Bull's Eye

The European Space Agency's Huygens Probe has landed onTitan and returned to earth some of the most stunning imagesever seen by man. The first staggering discovery is that,despite the fact that it is so cold that water ice would bea form of virtual stone, the environment has complex weatherand even liquid pools of a presently unidentified substance.

Planetologists believe that this will prove to be methane inliquid form. If so, then Titan probably has fluid lakes andrivers, and an active atmosphere which is based aroundentirely different elements from those that form the basisof earthly life.

There is even a group of scientists who believe that Titanmay harbor some form of life.

Titan's current atmosphere of yellow clouds and methanelakes resembles the way the Earth was billions of years ago,when simple life forms probably already existed here.

When most astronomers search of life, they first look forwater. Titan is too cold for water to exist in large amountsthere except in the form of ice, which is too cold tosupport living organisms. But Dr. Steven Benner, of theUniversity of Florida, thinks there could be life there anyway.

According to Benner, there are two absolute requirementsthat a plant or moon must have to support life?a temperaturerange that will allow chemical bonding and an energy source,such as the sun. Titan has both.

In the journal Current Opinion in Chemical Biology, he andcolleagues describe how organisms could survive in exoticenvironments like Titan's, whether or not all the water isfrozen.

Scientists are taking the hypothesis seriously, and there isa possibility that some life signs could be found within theHuygens data, although it is considered unlikely thatanything will appear that definitely confirms the existenceof life forms. The reason is that they will probably bemicroscopic in size, and the probe has no instrumentationaboard that would be capable of detecting them directly.

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