The news, reported in Space.com, that Saturn’s moon Titan has the chemicals that could lead to the development of life but not, as they used to say on “Star Trek," as we know it has placed the strange, methane shrouded world to the top of the list for further exploration. While methane is most abundant on Titan, both as a gas in its atmosphere and is liquid in streams, lakes, and seas, the chemical in question is hydrogen cyanide, made up of hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. Hydrogen cyanide is the precursor for amino acids and nucleic acids that are the building blocks of life.

To make a long story short, some researchers at Cornell University have run computer models that suggest, under some circumstances, the hydrogen cyanide could evolve into life, but based on liquid methane rather than water as Earth life forms are.

A great deal of what we know about Titan is courtesy of the Cassini space probes, currently orbiting Saturn and flying by periodically its wide variety of moons. Because of the hazy methane atmosphere, Cassini cannot detect whether life might exist on Titan or even the building blocks.

But the question cries out for a follow-up probe to visit the strange world sometime in the future.

Since Titan is the only other planet in the solar system besides Earth with bodies if liquid on its surface (Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus are thought to have oceans beneath ice layers) NASA scientists have imagined landing a boat or a submarine on Titan. Such a craft would ply the methane seas of Saturn’s biggest moon, taking samples and looking for life.

It would transmit its findings to an orbiting spacecraft which in turn would relay them to Earth.

Because of Obama administration cutbacks in planetary science, the Titan expedition remains a dream rather than a firmly manifested mission. However, if the next president renews NASA’s mandate to explore space, such a voyage of discovery – in space and on the strangest of all known oceans – could happen in a number of years, perhaps after the planned Europa expedition scheduled for the beginning of the 2020s.

The heavy lift Space Launch System could blast both the orbiter and the sailing elements of the probe to Titan in far less time than current rockets, taking a direct route and avoiding time-consuming gravity assist maneuvers. The scenes such a probe would return would be the most wondrous and bizarre ever sent by a space mission.

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