New Recipe For Saturn’s Orangey Moon Titan Is ‘Aromatic’ And Hazy

by Elizabeth Howell on June 16, 2014

A fish-eye view of Titan's surface from the European Space Agency's Huygens lander in January 2005. Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

A fish-eye view of Titan’s surface from the European Space Agency’s Huygens lander in January 2005. Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

What’s in all that browny orangey stuff in the atmosphere around Titan? It’s a question that scientists have been trying to answer concerning Saturn’s moon for decades (Carl Sagan was among them). That’s because it’s hard to reverse-engineer the recipe.

There are hundreds of thousands of hydrocarbons (hydrogen and carbon molecules) that could form the compounds in the atmosphere along with nitriles (nitrogen-abundant chemicals). But scientists are hoping that their new recipe gets a bit closer to understanding how the atmosphere works.

The researchers put gases inside of a chamber and monitored their reactions, starting with nitrogen and methane — the gases that are the most common in Titan’s atmosphere. Then they included benzene — which the Cassini spacecraft has detected in the atmosphere — along with close chemical relatives.

Titan's surface is almost completely hidden from view by its thick orange "smog" (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. Composite by J. Major)

Titan’s surface is almost completely hidden from view by its thick orange “smog” (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. Composite by J. Major)

In the end, it seemed the best third ingredient was choosing an “aromatic”, a sort of hydrocarbon, that includes nitrogen. That’s because the scientists saw that the spectrum of this gas appeared to be similar to what was spotted by Cassini.

“This is the closest anyone has come, to our knowledge, to recreating with lab experiments this particular feature seen in the Cassini data,” stated lead author Joshua Sebree, a former postdoctoral fellow at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center who is now an assistant professor at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.

Scientists say the recipe still needs some modifications, but this is a good start. The research is available in the journal Icarus.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

About 

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

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