A chemical compound said to exist in significant amounts on one of Saturn’s moons and that contributes to the mundane – manufacturing plastic – also is important for achieving the sublime: creation of life.
That compound, acrylonitrile, has been found on Titan, the largest moon orbiting Saturn, and NASA researchers have declared its definitive existence there after years of speculation.
“We found convincing evidence that acrylonitrile is present in Titan’s atmosphere, and we think a significant supply of this raw material reaches the surface,” said Maureen Palmer, a researcher with the Goddard Center for Astrobiology at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Palmer was quoted in an article published Friday on the NASA website.
The story says acrylonitrile is thought to be capable of forming stable, flexible structures similar to cell membranes, which is a key factor in the potential development of life.
“The ability to form a stable membrane to separate the internal environment from the external one is important because it provides a means to contain chemicals long enough to allow them to interact,” said Michael Mumma, director of the Goddard Center for Astrobiology, in the NASA article. “If membrane-like structures could be formed by vinyl cyanide, it would be an important step on the pathway to life on Saturn’s moon Titan.”
On Earth, acrylonitrile, also known as vinyl cyanide, is a key component in manufacturing plastic, the article says.