August 3, 2019

SMU researchers 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 Runčevski, an assistant professor of chemistry in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. SMU graduate student Christina McConville also was 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 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.

Read more at SMU Research.