Thursday, May 06, 2010

Contemplating life on Titan, right here on Earth

I've heard about tar pits before, but did you know there is a lake of tar in Trinidad that is larger than Vatican City?

And did you know it could help us understand how life could develop on Titan?
A lake of asphalt may be the closest thing on Earth to the hydrocarbon seas on Saturn's moon Titan, and it is apparently teeming with microbial life.

Not only could these findings help in the search for aliens in our own solar system, but they could provide insight into the evolution of life on this planet.

The largest naturally occurring asphalt lake on Earth is Pitch Lake on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, where black goo oozes across roughly 114 acres, an area slightly larger than that covered by Vatican City. Brimming as it is with hot asphalt and bubbling with carbon dioxide and hydrocarbon gases, Pitch Lake hardly seems fit for life.

However, scientists now find each gram of sticky black goo in Pitch Lake can harbor up to 10 million microbes, including bacteria as well as other single-celled organisms known as archaea.

This planet is teeming with life, even in the most inhospitable places, which means it shouldn't be all that surprising if we get to another planet or moon and happen to find something living. Especially at a microbial level. But, coming from someone who thinks we need to start ramping up our space exploration -- and colonization -- efforts, part of me hopes that never happens.

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