AAS 199th meeting, Washington, DC, January 2002
Session 82. Astrobiology - The Search for Life Beyond Earth
Invited, Tuesday, January 8, 2002, 3:40-5:10pm, International Ballroom Center

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[82.02] Other Targets in the Search for Life--from Saturn's Titan to Planetary Systems around other Stars

J. I. Lunine (Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, The University of Arizona)

In addition to the ``standard" targets in the search for life beyond Earth--namely Mars, Europa, and putative extra-solar terrestrial planets--there are others that are key to informing us as to the origin and persistence of life in the cosmos. Saturn's moon Titan, with its dense nitrogen atmosphere rich in methane, may hold important clues to how abiotic organic chemistry evolves toward biochemistry. In particular, while the stratospheric processing of methane and nitrogen by ultraviolet photons and cosmic rays generates a free radical chemistry that is by itself uninteresting from the point of view of biosynthesis, the products of this chemistry come to rest as liquids and solids on the surface of Titan. There, they are protected from upper atmospheric sources of energy, but localized surface processes, including those associated with impact heating, might drive the chemistry in interesting directions with respect to polymer structures, chirality, and other signatures of advanced organic chemistry. The first step in assessing these possibilities will come in three years with the Cassini-Huygens mission. Beyond our solar system, giant planets in orbit around other stars are not directly targets of the search for life elsewhere (their natural satellites being unpromising targets in terms of detectability), but their presence implies important things about the habitability of Earth-like planets that might orbit the same stars. Giant planets affect the orbital stability and impact history of terrestrial planets, as well as the delivery of water and biogenic compounds to the surfaces of putative ``other Earths". Further, giant planets provide fertile ground for testing detection and characterization techniques. Thus, to maximize the chances of success in answering the fundamental questions of astrobiology, we must broaden both our minds and the targets we choose to explore.

Some of the work described herein was supported by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's DDF, and by the NASA Origins Program.

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