Published online by Cambridge University Press: 15 May 2013
Titan, the largest satellite of Saturn, has a thick atmosphere containing nitrogen and methane. A variety of organic compounds have been detected in the atmosphere, most likely produced when atmospheric gases are exposed to ultraviolet light, electrons captured by the magnetosphere of Saturn and cosmic rays. The Cassini/Huygens probe showed that the average temperature on the surface of Titan is 93.7 K, with lakes of liquid ethane and methane. Sub-surface mixtures of liquid ammonia and water may also be present. We have synthesized complex organic compounds (tholins) by exposing a mixture of nitrogen and methane to plasma discharges, and investigated their interactions with several different liquids that simulate Titan's liquidosphere. We found that coacervates formed when tholins were extracted in non-polar solvents followed by exposure to aqueous ammonia solutions. The results suggest that coacervates can self-assemble in Titan's liquidosphere which have the potential to undergo further chemical evolution. Similar processes are likely to occur in the early evolution of habitable planets when tholin-like compounds undergo phase separation into microscopic structures dispersed in a suitable aqueous environment.