‘Titans in a jar’ could answer key questions ahead of NASA’s space exploration

Science Daily

Originally Posted: July 3, 2019

Researchers from Southern Methodist University (SMU) could help determine if Saturn’s icy moon — Titan — has ever been home to life long before NASA completes an exploratory visit to its surface by a drone helicopter.

NASA announced in late June that its “Dragonfly” mission would launch toward Saturn’s largest moon in 2026, expecting to arrive in 2034. The goal of the mission is to use a rotorcraft to visit dozens of promising locations on Titan to investigate the chemistry, atmospheric and surface properties that could lead to life.

SMU was awarded a $195,000 grant, also in June, to reproduce what is happening on Titan in a laboratory setting. The project, funded by the Houston-based Welch Foundation, will be led by Tom Run?evski, an assistant professor of chemistry in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. SMU graduate student Christina McConville was also awarded a fellowship by the Texas Space Grant Consortium to help with the project.

Before the rotorcraft lands on Titan, chemists from SMU will be recreating the conditions on Titan in multiple glass cylinders — each the size of a needle top — so they can learn about what kind of chemical structures could form on the Titan’s surface. The knowledge on these structures can ultimately help assess the possibility of life on Titan — whether in the past, present or future.

Scientists have long considered Titan to be very similar to pre-biotic Earth, even though it is a frigid world much farther from the sun than our planet. Titan is the only moon in the solar system to have a dense atmosphere like Earth, and is also the only world other than Earth to have standing bodies of liquids, including lakes, rivers and seas, on its surface. In addition, NASA scientists believe Titan may have a subsurface ocean of water.

“Titan is a hostile place, with lakes and seas of liquid methane, and rains and storms of methane. The storms carry organic molecules produced in the atmosphere to the surface, and at the surface conditions, only methane, ethane and propane are liquids. All other organic molecules are in their solid form — or, as we would call them on Earth, minerals,” Run?evski explained.

“We are interested in the chemical composition and crystal structure of these organic minerals, because it is believed that minerals played a key role in the origins of life on Earth,” he said. “Hence, our research may help assess these possibilities for strange “methanogenic” Titanean life.” READ MORE

By | 2019-11-25T09:38:58-08:00 September 10th, 2019|Chemistry, Dedman College Research, Faculty News|Comments Off on ‘Titans in a jar’ could answer key questions ahead of NASA’s space exploration