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SYFY WIRE Resident Alien

Alien Life on Saturn’s Moon Titan Looking Less Likely, At Least Below the Surface

It's rough out there.

By Cassidy Ward

There’s no place like Earth anywhere else in the solar system, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re alone. Scientists have identified a number of places where life might have once existed and where it might still exist today. It’s believed that Mars was once much more Earth-like, with flowing liquid water where life might have thrived; the Jovian moon Europa has a liquid water ocean beneath a solid frozen crust, warmed by thermal vents which could support an underwater ecosystem; and Saturn’s moon Enceladus has similar offerings.

How to Watch

Watch Resident Alien on SYFY and Peacock.

Titan, another of Saturn’s moons, has long been favored as a potential venue for alien life because of its unique environment. First of all, if it weren’t orbiting Saturn, it might be considered a planet in its own right. It's slightly larger in diameter than Mercury and is the only moon with a substantial atmosphere.

That atmosphere is made mostly of nitrogen, like Earth’s atmosphere, and is dense enough that an astronaut wouldn’t need a pressure suit to walk around on the surface. They could get away with an oxygen mask and a really, really good jacket. Titan even has a liquid cycle similar to Earth’s water cycle. It has rain, rivers, lakes, and seas flowing over the moon’s surface. Only, instead of being made of water, the surface liquid of Titan is made of hydrocarbons like methane.

For More on Saturn’s Moon Titan:
Titan Has Geological Features Eerily Similar to Those on Earth
How Titan’s Deepest Sea Can Give Us a Glimpse Into What Earth Was Like Billions of Years Ago
Release the Kraken! Huge Methane Lakes on Saturn’s Moon Titan Run Deep

Titan’s Subsurface Ocean Might Be Starved of Nutrients


Just beneath the surface of Titan, you’ll find two thick layers of ice with a global ocean of liquid water sandwiched in the middle. Titan is an interesting spot to look for life because it has two distinct ecosystems to work with. Organic molecules in the atmosphere have ready access to the surface and scientists have considered the possibility that Titan’s unique surface chemistry might support a form of life totally unlike Earth’s. Meanwhile, the subterranean water ocean could conceivably support life more like our own – or like the extraterrestrial Octopodiformes of Resident Alien (watch new Season 3 episodes Wednesdays on SYFY and next day on Peacock) – but only if the organics from the surface can get down there.

A new study published in the journal Astrobiology, set out to figure out how much organic material gets delivered from the surface to the underground ocean. Researchers focused on impact craters as a method of getting through the barrier of crust and ice. The thinking goes that the heat and pressure of impact creates melt deposits of liquid water on the surface which can snatch up organic molecules from the dense atmosphere. Being denser, liquid water on the surface sinks through the ice to the ocean below, carrying its molecular goodies with it.


Researchers modeled the environment of Titan and crunched the numbers on the impact transport of organic molecules. Actually, they were looking at a single molecule called glycine, a crucial amino acid. Unfortunately for any enterprising extraterrestrials in Titan’s subsurface ocean, the models put an upper limit on organic molecule transport that is likely too low to support a large biosphere.

It’s not all bad news, though. It’s possible that there are other transport methods that haven’t been considered, or that the subsurface ocean is fed by thermal vents and receives organic material that way. These findings also don’t influence the potential for life on the surface of Titan one way or another. In the search for extraterrestrial friends, we’re not ready to discount Titan just yet.

Catch Resident Alien with new Season 3 episodes Wednesdays at 10/9c on SYFY and next day on Peacock.