NASA-supported scientists have shown that the atmosphere of Titan could be an ideal environment in which to make a specific compound relevant to the origins of life on Earth.

The study focuses on a compound called malononitrile, which is highly reactive and could have played a role in the formation of nucleobases and nucleosides before life’s origins on early Earth. Even though malononitrile is of interest in prebiotic chemistry and astrobiology, scientists have been unable to document how it is made on Earth. This compound has also not yet been identified in space.

In the new study, the research team proposes that the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan could be an environment conducive to the formation and persistence of malononitrile. The paper discusses the feasibility of malononitrile synthesis under the conditions present in Titan’s upper atmosphere, and in the presence of chemicals that have either been detected by missions like the Cassini spacecraft, or those that are predicted to be present based on our current understanding of Titan.

The study, “Possible Gas-Phase Synthesis of Neutral Malononitrile (C3H2N2) and Isocyanoacetonitrile (NCCH2NC) under the Upper Atmospheric Conditions of Titan,” was published in ACS Earth Space Chemistry.