Organic Compounds Discovered in Titan’s Upper Atmosphere

The Cassini space probe has discovered a variety of complex hydrocarbons and carbon-nitrogen compounds in the upper atmosphere of Titan. Described by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as an “organic ‘factory’ of hydrocarbons” the upper atmosphere seems to be an unlikely spot for such high levels of these compounds, since they should condense and rain out on the moon’s surface. The mechanism by which these compounds are created likely includes ultraviolet radiation from the sun, although the exact details are not well understood.

The graph below shows the presence of compounds containing 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 carbons in their molecular structure, some of which are hydrocarbons (carbon combined with hydrogen) and others that are carbon-nitrogen compounds. Titan’s atmosphere is composed mostly of nitrogen and a significant amount of methane (CH4).

This discovery is not that same as discovering life, but complex hydrocarbons are known precursors to the building blocks that somehow lead to life. Scientists hope data about organic chemistry on Titan will give them a better understand of how life may have started on our own planet.

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Richard Leis

Richard Leis is a fiction writer and poet, with his first published poem forthcoming later in 2017 from Impossible Archetype. His essays about fairy tales and technology have been published on Tiny Donkey. Richard is also the Downlink Lead for the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) team at the University of Arizona. He monitors images of the Martian surface taken by the HiRISE camera located on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in orbit around Mars and helps ensure they process successfully and are validated for quick release to the science community and public. Once upon a time, Richard wrote and edited the science and technology news and commentary website Frontier Channel, hosted the RADIO Frontier Channel podcast, and organized transhumanist clubs. Follow Richard on his website (, on Goodreads (richardleis), his (@richardleis), Twitter (@richardleisjr), and Facebook (richardleisjr).