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NASA scientists make unexpected discovery of 'weird' molecule in Titan's atmosphere

NASA is prepping its Dragonfly mission to go look for signs of life on the enticing moon.

Titan poses in front of Saturn in this mosaic image from the Cassini mission.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Chances are cyclopropenylidene (a combination of carbon and hydrogen) never appeared on your high school chemistry class quizzes, but the molecule has some astronomers buzzing since it was discovered in the atmosphere of Saturn's intriguing moon Titan.

"Scientists say that this simple carbon-based molecule may be a precursor to more complex compounds that could form or feed possible life on Titan," NASA said in a statement Tuesday

Titan, an icy moon with methane lakes, is the target of NASA's upcoming Dragonfly mission, which will look for signs of past or present life.   

A research team led by NASA scientists published its Titan study in the Astronomical Journal this month. The team made the discovery thanks to observations from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile.

NASA planetary scientist Conor Nixon described the findings as "really unexpected." This is the first time cyclopropenylidene has been found in an atmosphere, though it has been spotted in gas and dust clouds in space.  

Titan -- which scientists suspect harbors a subsurface ocean of water -- may be a parallel for ancient Earth. "We think of Titan as a real-life laboratory where we can see similar chemistry to that of ancient Earth when life was taking hold here," said NASA Goddard astrobiologist Melissa Trainer.

Cyclopropenylidene isn't proof of life on Titan, but it adds a new layer of intrigue to the many mysteries surrounding the fascinating, jumbo-size moon. 

Dragonfly, which is essentially a large drone, will be designed to touch down in multiple locations across Titan. We'll have to wait awhile for clearer answers to what's really going on there. NASA is aiming for a 2027 launch for the mission.