Carl Sagan proved right by NASA probe two decades after landmark Saturn prediction

A compelling speech by Carl Sagan: The Pale Blue Dot

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Titan has long since been touted as one of the places in our Solar System that could sustain life. An icy world whose surface is completely obscured by a golden hazy atmosphere, it is the second largest moon in our Solar System, and bigger even than the planet Mercury. It is also the only moon in the Solar System with a dense atmosphere and the only world besides ours that has standing bodies of liquid.

This includes rivers, lakes and seas, which has for years excited scientists at the prospect of extraterrestrial life.

However, little was known about Titan or Saturn before the Cassini Probe launch in 1997.

It took the spacecraft several years to reach Saturn, having travelled two billion miles, going on to transform our understanding of the sixth planet from the Sun and its moons.

Titan and Enceladus quickly proved to be among the most exciting for scientists to pick apart.

Cassini deployed a small European robot called Huygens on Titan’s surface in 2005.

It returned with remarkable images of pebbles that had been smoothed and rounded by the action of flowing methane, the first discovery of its kind.

Yet, 20 years before this, Carl Sagan, the renowned scientist and populariser of the discipline, had predicted Cassini’s very findings.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, speaking during National Geographic’s documentary, ‘Cosmos: Possible Worlds’, noted how the astronomer’s calculations were precisely what the probe found.

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Talking about the robot’s landing on Titan, he said: “As Carl Sagan had predicted more than two decades before, there were seas of methane and ethane, and there was water ice.”

In the Seventies, Sagan and chemist Bishun Khare, then at Cornell University, were already publishing papers describing the organic chemistry that might be taking place on Titan.

However, at that point, the large bodies of liquid on the moon’s surface hadn’t yet been spotted.

Sagan and Khare were thinking about the types of reactions that might be taking place in the moon’s atmosphere.

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Later on, the pair would show it was possible to make amino acids using the elements found in the moon’s haze.

In the early Nineties, the Hubble space telescope gave hints that Titan was indeed a wet world.

But the technology was still not quite there to decide for certain that Sagan and Khare’s work was fact.

When Huygens started to send its reports back to Earth, the scientists who received them were stunned by the findings.

Not only this, but when Cassini travelled across Enceladus, its reports were filled with evidence of conditions perfect for life.

At one stage, it showed the moon spurting water vapour into space from cracks at its South Pole.

The H2O came from an ocean held beneath the moon’s icy shell.

And when it flew through the water plumes, conditions in the sub-surface ocean were presented as very probably suitable for life.

Cassini was ordered to its death in 2017, plunging into the hostile depths of Saturn itself.

Today, scientists are already thinking about how they can go back with another, more capable probe to investigate whether there really is life on Titan and Enceladus.

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