Jul 03, 2019 08:59 PM EDT
It may be possible for Southern Methodist University (SMU) researchers to determine if icy moon of Saturn, Titan, has ever been home to life long before NASA completes an exploration visit to its surface by a drone helicopter.
In late June, NASA announced that its "Dragonfly" mission would launch toward Saturn's largest moon in 2026 with an expectation to arrive in 2034. The purpose 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.
Also in June, SMU got an award of a $195,000 grant to reproduce what is happening on Titan in a laboratory setting. The Houston-based Welch Foundation funded the project which Tom Runcevski, an assistant professor of chemistry in SMU's Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, will lead. Also, the Texas Space Grant Consortium awarded a fellowship to SMU graduate student Christina McConville to assist with the project.
Ahead of the rotorcraft landing on Titan, SMU chemists 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 surface of Titan. The knowledge on these structures can ultimately help assess the possibility of life on Titan, whether in the past, present, or future.
Runcevski explained that 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 scientists would call them on Earth, minerals.
Noting further, Runcevski said that they are interested in the chemical composition and crystal structure of these organic minerals because it is believed that minerals played a crucial role in the origins of life on Earth. Hence, their research may assist in assessing these possibilities for strange "methanogenic" Titanean life.
At SMU, for the team to create these "Titans in a jar," Runcevski explained that they would use information about the conditions on Titan that were obtained during the mission Cassini-Huygens which ended two years ago. Runcevski explained that they could recreate this world step by step in a cylinder made of glass. First, they will introduce water which freezes into ice. Second, they will top that layer of ice with ethane that liquidizes as a 'lake.' Then, they will fill the remaining cylinder with nitrogen.
They will perform large parts of these experiments at research facilities that provide modern synchrotron and neutron radiation such as Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and the National Institute and Technology in Maryland.
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