Alien Life Without Water

Is Alien Life Without Water Possible?
For all of my life, there have been articles, videos, and public presentations claiming that there must be life elsewhere in the universe. Now that we know there are thousands of planets in the creation, we see attempts to maintain that with so many planets there must be life somewhere. Scientists are even speculating alien life without water.

We need to remember that the Bible doesn’t say that this is the only planet where God created life, so this is not a biblical issue. The latest attempts to expand the window of what life is has rejuvenated the need to show the design built into the development of life. Life on Earth is based on carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. The National Science Foundation has just funded a three-year program at Saint Louis University to explore what building blocks might be used to make a different kind of life. The chemicals they are considering are hexane, ethers, and chloroform. There is particular interest in whether these materials can form membranes that could be considered life.

The first problem is the definition of life. Life has traditionally been defined as “that which can move, breathe, respond to outside stimuli and reproduce.” An extraordinary chemistry is necessary to meet all of these criteria. Water is the basic substance of life on Earth. The water molecule is polar, meaning that one end of the molecule is negative and the other end is positive. Oxygen is the negative end. Oxygen’s bonding orbitals allow the attachment of two hydrogen atoms making that end positive. This polarity allows water to dissolve other molecules. Salt, for example, is made up of sodium which is positive and chlorine which is negative. When you put salt in water, the sodium is attracted to the oxygen end of the water molecule, and the chlorine is attracted to the hydrogen end of the molecule because unlike charges attract each other. This pulls the salt molecule apart and allows the salt to dissolve. Alien life without water seems impossible.

Hydrocarbons like methane have four hydrogen atoms attached to the carbon atom symmetrically. That makes the molecule non-polar and unable to dissolve salt. Numerous experiments are underway to circumvent this problem including the use of vinyl cyanide (also called acrylonitrile) which has been found in the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan. Coming up with a formula for alien life without water will be difficult. How a substitute for oxidation would work has not even been publicized, so respiration would be an equally great challenge.

Chris Butch, a chemist of the Earth Life Institute, says “It’s like trying to build a car in your backyard out of lawnmower parts, versus having the Maserati factory build a supercar.” As science looks for something that can be called life elsewhere in the solar system, we should be impressed with the wisdom involved in the original building of life on planet Earth.
–John N. Clayton © 2019

Reference: Astronomy magazine, February 2019, page 29-35.

Titan Studies Verify Earth’s Uniqueness

Titan Studies Verify Earth's Uniqueness
Yesterday we wrote about the end of the Cassini mission. We mentioned that an early highlight of that mission was landing the Huygens probe on Titan in January of 2005. Titan is a moon of Saturn and the largest moon in our solar system. Scientists were very interested in studying Titan thinking they might find evidence of life. Instead, the Titan studies verify Earth’s uniqueness.

It took seven years for the Huygens lander to make the 2.2-billion-mile (3.5 billion km) journey to Saturn on board the Cassini spacecraft. Cassini arrived at Saturn in June 2004, but it was not until Christmas Day that the Titan probe separated from the Cassini spaceship. On January 14, the probe entered the upper atmosphere of Titan at 12,400 miles (almost 20,000 km) per hour. After opening three parachutes, Huygens eventually completed a 150-minute descent to land on the surface of Titan.

As Huygens descended to the surface, it made measurements of all kinds and turned on a spotlight to photograph its soft landing. It then sent pictures and data from the surface of Titan to the Cassini spacecraft for about an hour-and-a-half. The Cassini spacecraft relayed the data and pictures to Earth. This expedition was an incredible success and told us much about conditions in another area of the solar system.

Some experts predicted that they would find life, or at least the precursors of life, on Titan. Spectrographic analysis of the atmosphere had shown a huge amount of nitrogen and some methane (natural gas) in the atmosphere. The presence of methane was of special interest to scientists because methane, with a carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms, is the building block of more complicated organic molecules. Some biochemists predicted massive numbers of complex organic molecules in oceans of hydrocarbons on Titan–perhaps even some basic life-forms.

As the Huygens probe sent back pictures from Titan, scientists were amazed to see carved river channels, old shorelines, and clouds. With a temperature of minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit (-184 C) these obviously could not be water-carved channels. As Huygens landed, it broke through a crusty surface and sank several inches into the ground. The chemical studies of the spongy surface showed that it was not rock, but frozen gaseous material. Titan’s atmosphere could not sustain life. The clouds turned out to be methane, and scientists could find no oxygen or oxygen compounds on Titan. Titan has a spongy surface saturated with organic compounds. The density of Titan tells us that deep down under all of this organic ice there must be very dense rock.

It is becoming apparent that the other planets in our solar system have very little in common with Earth. Titan studies verify Earth’s uniqueness once again. Jonathon Lunine, a planetary scientist who worked on this project, described the findings in this way, “This is a planetary scene like no other, vaguely disturbing and nightmarish to me and certainly not Mars or Venus.”

Our point is that all the discoveries science has made about the solar system have shown how special and unique the Earth is. It is wonderful that humans can build a machine to probe such strange and exotic places. As we learn more about the universe, we see the truthfulness of the Psalmist’s words, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge” (Psalms 19:1-2, NIV).
–John N. Clayton © 2017

Cassini Exceeded Expectations

Cassini Exceeded Expectations
On the morning of September 15, 2017, Cassini ended its life in fiery destruction. Cassini was a space probe orbiting and studying Saturn, and by all measures, Cassini exceeded expectations.

NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency worked together on the Cassini-Huygens space exploration project. The mission was to study Saturn along with its moons and rings. NASA launched the spacecraft in 1997, and it arrived near Saturn and went into orbit around that planet in 2004.

The Huygens (pronounced hoy-guns) lander module, provided by the ESA, separated from the Cassini probe and landed on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, in 2005. The parachute landing was successful, and the probe sent out data for about 90 minutes. In that brief time, scientists learned much about the surface of that distant moon. Viewed from Titan’s surface, the Sun appeared about the size and brightness of a car headlight 150 meters away. The Huygens probe took pictures and told us that Titan’s surface is dotted with rivers, lakes, and oceans made of methane and ethane. It also has dunes up to 300 feet (91 meters) tall.

Meanwhile, the Cassini probe continued to orbit Saturn and send back amazing and beautiful pictures of its rings and moons for 13 years. Cassini helped us to learn more about the moons of Saturn. The planet has at least 53 moons and possibly eight more. We learned that the moon Enceladus is covered with a liquid water ocean with a surface layer of ice 19 to 25 miles (30 to 40 km) thick. Geysers of water erupt from cracks in the ice. The rings of Saturn are a constantly changing collection of ice particles and small rocks. Saturn has hurricane-like storms at both poles and a hexagon-shaped jet stream at the north pole. How long is a day on Saturn? That’s hard to determine because it is a gas planet and not all parts of it move at the same speed. Scientists estimate a little more than 10 hours.

Cassini exceeded expectations by surviving seven years of travel to Saturn plus 13 years orbiting the planet. As it ran out of fuel, scientists sent it hurtling into Saturn’s atmosphere to burn up so it could not contaminate any of Saturn’s moons by crashing into them.

We are fascinated by the Cassini photos and scientists will continue to study them for years. The picture we posted shows a Cassini view of Saturn and its rings with a bright spot visible below the rings. That spot is the planet where we live. As we look at the hostile environment of space and the other planets, we realize how incredible Earth is. God has given us a place with everything we need for life. You might say that compared to any other place in the universe, Earth exceeds expectations.
–Roland Earnst © 2017