Is There a Kraken in Kraken Mare? What Kind of Life Would We Find on Titan?

The left image shows a mosaic of images of Titan taken by the Cassini spacecraft in near infrared light. Titan’s polar seas are visible as sunlight glints off of them. The right image is a radar image of Kraken Mare. Credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Could there be life on Saturn’s large moon Titan? Asking the question forces astrobiologists and chemists to think carefully and creatively about the chemistry of life, and how it might be different on other worlds than it is on Earth. In February, a team of researchers from Cornell University, including chemical engineering graduate student James Stevenson, planetary scientist Jonathan Lunine, and chemical engineer Paulette Clancy, published a pioneering study arguing that cell membranes could form under the exotic chemical conditions present on this remarkable moon.

In many ways, Titan is Earth’s twin. It’s the second largest moon in the solar system and bigger than the planet Mercury. Like Earth, it has a substantial atmosphere, with a surface atmospheric pressure a bit higher than Earth’s. Besides Earth, Titan is the only object in our solar system known to have accumulations of liquid on its surface. NASA’s Cassini space probe discovered abundant lakes and even rivers in Titan’s polar regions. The largest lake, or sea, called Kraken Mare, is larger than Earth’s Caspian Sea. Researchers know from both spacecraft observations and laboratory experiments that Titan’s atmosphere is rich in complex organic molecules, which are the building blocks of life.

All these features might make it seem as though Titan is tantalizingly suitable for life. The name ‘Kraken’, which refers to a legendary sea monster, fancifully reflects the eager hopes of astrobiologists. But, Titan is Earth’s alien twin. Being almost ten times further from the sun than Earth is, its surface temperature is a frigid -180 degrees Celsius. Liquid water is vital to life as we know it, but on Titan’s surface all water is frozen solid. Water ice takes on the role that silicon-containing rock does on Earth, making up the outer layers of the crust.

The liquid that fills Titan’s lakes and rivers is not water, but liquid methane, probably mixed with other substances like liquid ethane, all of which are gases here on Earth. If there is life in Titan’s seas, it is not life as we know it. It must be an alien form of life, with organic molecules dissolved in liquid methane instead of liquid water. Is such a thing even possible?

The Cornell team took up one key part of this challenging question by investigating whether cell membranes can exist in liquid methane. Every living cell is, essentially, a self-sustaining network of chemical reactions, contained within bounding membranes. Scientists think that cell membranes emerged very early in the history of life on Earth, and their formation might even have been the first step in the origin of life.

Here on Earth, cell membranes are as familiar as high school biology class. They are made of large molecules called phospholipids. Each phospholipid molecule has a ‘head’ and a ‘tail’. The head contains a phosphate group, with a phosphorus atom linked to several oxygen atoms. The tail consists of one or more strings of carbon atoms, typically 15 to 20 atoms long, with hydrogen atoms linked on each side. The head, due to the negative charge of its phosphate group, has an unequal distribution of electrical charge, and we say that it is polar. The tail, on the other hand, is electrically neutral.

phospholipid membrane
Here on Earth, cell membranes are composed of phospholipid molecules dissolved in liquid water. A phospholipid has a backbone of carbon atoms (gray), and also contains hydrogen (sky blue), phosphorus (yellow), oxygen (red), and nitrogen (blue). Due to the positive charge associated with the nitrogen containing choline group, and the negative charge associated with the phosphate group, the head is polar, and attracts water. It is therefore hydrophilic. The hydrocarbon tail is electrically neutral and hydrophobic. The structure of a cell membrane is due these electrical properties of phospholipids and water. The molecules form a double layer, with the hydrophilic heads facing outward, towards water, and the hydrophobic tails facing inward, towards one another. Credit: Ties van Brussel

These electrical properties determine how phospholipid molecules will behave when they are dissolved in water. Electrically speaking, water is a polar molecule. The electrons in the water molecule are more strongly attracted to its oxygen atom than to its two hydrogen atoms. So, the side of the molecule where the two hydrogen atoms are has a slight positive charge, and the oxygen side has a small negative charge. These polar properties of water cause it to attract the polar head of the phospholipid molecule, which is said to be hydrophilic, and repel its nonpolar tail, which is said to be hydrophobic.

When phospholipid molecules are dissolved in water, the electrical properties of the two substances work together to cause the phospholipid molecules to organize themselves into a membrane. The membrane closes onto itself into a little sphere called a liposome. The phospholipid molecules form a bilayer two molecules thick. The polar hydrophilic heads face outward towards the water on both the inner and outer surface of the membrane. The hydrophobic tails are sandwiched between, facing each other. While the phospholipid molecules remain fixed in their layer, with their heads facing out and their tails facing in, they can still move around with respect to each other, giving the membrane the fluid flexibility needed for life.

Phospholipid bilayer membranes are the basis of all terrestrial cell membranes. Even on its own, a liposome can grow, reproduce and aid certain chemical reactions important to life, which is why some biochemists think that the formation of liposomes might have been the first step towards life. At any rate, the formation of cell membranes must surely been an early step in life’s emergence on Earth.

water and methane
At the left, water, consisting of hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O), is a polar solvent. Oxygen attracts electrons more strongly than hydrogen does, giving the hydrogen side of the molecule a net positive charge and the oxygen side a net negative charge. The delta symbol ( ) indicates that the charge is partial, that is less than a full unit of positive or negative charge. At right, methane is a non-polar solvent, due to the symmetrical distribution of hydrogen atoms (H) around a central carbon atom (C). Credit: Jynto as modified by Paul Patton.

If some form of life exists on Titan, whether sea monster or (more likely) microbe, it would almost certainly need to have a cell membrane, just like every living thing on Earth does. Could phospholipid bilayer membranes form in liquid methane on Titan? The answer is no. Unlike water, the methane molecule has an even distribution of electrical charges. It lacks water’s polar qualities, and so couldn’t attract the polar heads of phospholipid molecule. This attraction is needed for the phospholipids to form an Earth-style cell membrane.

Experiments have been conducted where phospholipids are dissolved in non-polar liquids at Earthly room temperature. Under these conditions, the phospholipids form an ‘inside-out’ two layer membrane. The polar heads of the phospholipid molecules are at the center, attracted to one another by their electrical charges. The non-polar tails face outward on each side of the inside-out membrane, facing the non-polar solvent.

membranes in polar and non-polar solvents
At left, phospholipids are dissolved in water, a polar solvent. They form a bilayer membrane, with their polar, hydrophilic heads facing outward towards water, and their hydrophobic tails facing each other. At right, when phospholipids are dissolved in a non-polar solvent at Earthly room temperature, they form an inside-out membrane, with the polar heads attracting one another, and the non-polar tails facing outwards towards the non-polar solvent. Based on figure 2 from Stevenson, Lunine, and Clancy (2015). Credit: Paul Patton

Could Titanian life have an inside out phospholipid membrane? The Cornell team concluded that this wouldn’t work, for two reasons. The first is that at the cryogenic temperatures of liquid methane, the tails of phospholipids become rigid, depriving any inside-out membrane that might form of the fluid flexibility needed for life. The second is that two key ingredients of phospholipids; phosphorus and oxygen, are probably unavailable in the methane lakes of Titan. In their search for Titanian cell membranes, the Cornell team needed to probe beyond the familiar realm of high school biology.

Although not composed of phospholipids, the scientists reasoned that any Titanian cell membrane would nevertheless be like the inside-out phospholipid membranes created in the lab. It would consist of polar molecules clinging together electrically in a solution of non-polar liquid methane. What molecules might those be? For answers the researchers looked to data from the Cassini spacecraft and from laboratory experiments that reproduced the chemistry of Titan’s atmosphere.

Titan’s atmosphere is known to have a very complex chemistry. It is made mostly of nitrogen and methane gas. When the Cassini spacecraft analyzed its composition using spectroscopy it found traces of a variety of compounds of carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen, called nitriles and amines. Researchers have simulated the chemistry of Titan’s atmosphere in the lab by exposing mixtures of nitrogen and methane to sources of energy simulating sunlight on Titan. A stew of organic molecules called ‘tholins’ is formed. It consists of compounds of hydrogen and carbon, called hydrocarbons, as well as nitriles and amines.

The Cornell investigators saw nitriles and amines as potential candidates for their Titanian cell membranes. Both are polar molecules that might stick together to form a membrane in non-polar liquid methane due to the polarity of nitrogen containing groups found in both of them. They reasoned that candidate molecules must be much smaller than phospholipids, so that they could form fluid membranes at liquid methane temperatures. They considered nitriles and amines containing strings of between three and six carbon atoms. Nitrogen containing groups are called ‘azoto’ –groups, so the team named their hypothetical Titanian counterpart to the liposome the ‘azotosome’.

Synthesizing azotosomes for experimental study would have been difficult and expensive, because the experiments would need to be conducted at the cryogenic temperatures of liquid methane. But since the candidate molecules have been studied extensively for other reasons, the Cornell researchers felt justified in turning to the tools of computational chemistry to determine whether their candidate molecules could cohere as a flexible membrane in liquid methane. Computational models have been used successfully to study conventional phospholipid cell membranes.

acrylonitrile
Acrylonitrile has been identified as a possible basis for cell membranes in liquid methane on Titan. It is known to be present in Titan’s atmosphere at a concentration of 10 parts per million and has been produced in laboratory simulations of the effects of energy sources on Titan’s nitrogen-methane atmosphere. As a small polar molecule capable of dissolving in liquid methane, it is a candidate substance for the formation of cell membranes in an alternative biochemistry on Titan. Light blue: carbon atoms, dark blue: nitrogen atom, white: hydrogen atoms. Credit: Ben Mills as modified by Paul Patton.

acrylonitrile membrane
Polar acrylonitrile molecules align ‘head’ to ‘tail’ to form a membrane in non-polar liquid methane. Light blue: carbon atoms, dark blue: nitrogen atoms, white: hydrogen atoms. Credit: James Stevenson.

The group’s computational simulations showed that some candidate substances could be ruled out because they would not cohere as a membrane, would be too rigid, or would form a solid. Nevertheless, the simulations also showed that a number of substances would form membranes with suitable properties. One suitable substance is acrylonitrile, which Cassini showed is present in Titan’s atmosphere at 10 parts per million concentration. Despite the huge difference in temperature between cryogenic azotozomes and room temperature liposomes, the simulations showed them to exhibit strikingly similar properties of stability and response to mechanical stress. Cell membranes, then, are possible for life in liquid methane.

azotosome
Computational chemistry simulations show that acrylonitrile and some other small polar nitrogen containing organic molecules are capable of forming ‘azotosomes’ when they are dissolved on liquid methane. Azotosomes are small membrane bounded spherules like the liposomes formed by phospholipids when they are dissolved in water. The simulations show that acrylonitrile azotosomes would be both stable and flexible in cryogenically cold liquid methane, giving them the properties they need to function as cell membranes for hypothetical Titanian life, or for life on any world with liquid methane on its surface. The azotosome shown is 9 nanometers in size, about the size of a virus. Light blue: carbon atoms, dark blue: nitrogen atoms, white: hydrogen atoms. Credit: James Stevenson.

The scientists from Cornell view their findings as nothing more than a first step towards showing that life in liquid methane is possible, and towards developing the methods that future spacecraft will need to search for it on Titan. If life is possible in liquid methane, the implications ultimately extend far beyond Titan.

When seeking conditions suitable for life in the galaxy, astronomers typically search for exoplanets within a star’s habitable zone, defined as the narrow range of distances over which a planet with an Earth-like atmosphere would have a surface temperature suitable for liquid water. If methane life is possible, then stars would also have a methane habitable zone, a region where methane could exist as a liquid on a planet or moon, making methane life possible. The number of habitable worlds in the galaxy would be greatly increased. Perhaps, on some worlds, methane life evolves into complex forms that we can scarcely imagine. Maybe some of them are even a bit like sea monsters.

References and Further Reading:

N. Atkinson (2010) Alien Life on Titan? Hang on Just a Minute, Universe Today.

N. Atkinson (2010) Life on Titan Could be Smelly and Explosive, Universe Today.

M. L. Cable, S. M. Horst, R. Hodyss, P. M. Beauchamp, M. A. Smith, P. A. Willis, (2012) Titan tholins: Simulating Titan organic chemistry in the Cassini-Huygens era, Chemical Reviews, 112:1882-1909.

E. Howell (2014) Titan’s Majestic Mirror-Like Lakes Will Come Under Cassini’s Scrutiny This Week, Universe Today.

J. Major (2013) Titan’s North Pole is Loaded With Lakes, Universe Today.

C. P. McKay, H. D. Smith, (2005) Possibilities for methanogenic life in liquid methane on the surface of Titan, Icarus 178: 274-276.

J. Stevenson, J. Lunine, P. Clancy, (2015) Membrane alternatives in worlds without oxygen: Creation of an azotosome, Science Advances 1(1):e1400067.

S. Oleson (2014) Titan submarine: Exploring the depths of Kraken, NASA Glenn Research Center, Press release.

Cassini Solstice Mission, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

NASA and ESA celebrate 10 years since Titan landing, NASA 2015

Why Don’t We Search for Different Life?

If we really want to find life on other worlds, why do we keep looking for life based on carbon and water? Why don’t we look for the stuff that’s really different?

In the immortal words of Arthur C. Clarke, “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

I’m seeking venture capital for a Universal buffet chain, and I wondering if I need to include whatever the tentacle equivalent of forks is on my operating budget. If there isn’t any life, I’m going to need to stop watching so much science fiction and get on with helping humanity colonize space.

Currently, astrobiologists are hard at work searching for life, trying to answer this question. The SETI Institute is scanning radio signals from space, hoping to catch a message. Since humans use radio waves, maybe aliens will too. NASA is using the Curiosity Rover to search for evidence that liquid water existed on the surface of Mars long enough for life to get going. The general rule is if we find liquid water on Earth, we find life. Astronomers are preparing to study the atmospheres of extrasolar planets, looking for gasses that match what we have here on Earth.

Isn’t this just intellectually lazy? Do our scientists lack imagination? Aren’t they all supposed to watch Star Trek How do we know that life is going to look anything like the life we have on Earth? Oh, the hubris!

Who’s to say aliens will bother to communicate with radio waves, and will transcend this quaint transmission system and use beams of neutrinos instead. Or physics we haven’t even discovered yet? Perhaps they talk using microwaves and you can tell what the aliens are saying by how your face gets warmed up. And how do we know that life needs to depend on water and carbon? Why not silicon-based lifeforms, or beings which are pure energy? What about aliens that breathe pure molten boron and excrete seahorse dreams? Why don’t these scientists expand their search to include life as we don’t know it? Why are they so closed-minded?

Viking Lander
In 1976, two Viking spacecraft landed on Mars. The image is of a model of the Viking lander, along with astronomer and pioneering astrobiologist Carl Sagan. Each lander was equipped with life detection experiments designed to detect life based on its metabolic activities.
Credits: NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech

The reality is they’re just being careful. A question this important requires good evidence. Consider the search for life on Mars. Back in the 1970s, the Viking Lander carried an experiment that would expose Martian soil to water and nutrients, and then try to detect out-gassing from microbes. The result of the experiment was inconclusive, and scientists still argue over the results today. If you’re going to answer a question like this, you want to be conclusive. Also, getting to Mars is pretty challenging to begin with. You probably don’t want to “half-axe” your science.

The current search for life is incremental and exhaustive. NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity searched for evidence that liquid water once existed on the surface of Mars. They found evidence of ancient water many times, in different locations. The fact that water once existed on the surface of Mars is established. Curiosity has extended this line of research, looking for evidence that water existed on the surface of Mars for long periods of time. Long enough that life could have thrived. Once again, the rover has turned up the evidence that scientists were hoping to see. Mars was once hospitable for life, for long periods of time. The next batch of missions will actually search for life, both on the surface of Mars and bringing back samples to Earth so we can study them here.

The search for life is slow and laborious because that’s how science works. You start with the assumption that since water is necessary for life on Earth, it makes sense to just check other water in the Solar System. It’s the low hanging fruit, then once you’ve exhausted all the easy options, you get really creative.

An illustration of a Titanic lake by Ron Miller. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
An illustration of a Titanic lake by Ron Miller. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Scientists have gotten really creative about how and where they could search for life. Astrobiologists have considered other liquids that could be conducive for life. Instead of water, it’s possible that alternative forms of life could use liquid methane or ammonia as a solvent for its biological processes. In fact, this environment exists on the surface of Titan. But even if we did send a rover to Titan, how would we even know what to look for?

We understand how life works here, so we know what kinds of evidence to pursue. But kind of what evidence would be required to convince you there’s life as you don’t understand it? Really compelling evidence.
Go ahead and propose some alternative forms of life and how you think we’d go searching for it in the comments.

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NASA’s Curiosity Rover detects Methane, Organics on Mars

On Tuesday, December 16, 2014, NASA scientists attending the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco announced the detection of organic compounds on Mars. The announcement represents the discovery of the missing “ingredient” that is necessary for the existence – past or present – of life on Mars.

Indeed, the extraordinary claim required extraordinary evidence – the famous assertion of Dr. Carl Sagan. The scientists, members of the Mars Science Lab – Curiosity Rover – mission, worked over a period of 20 months to sample and analyze Martian atmospheric and surface samples to arrive at their conclusions. The announcement stems from two separate detections of organics: 1) ten-fold spikes in atmospheric Methane levels, and 2) drill samples from a rock called Cumberland which included complex organic compounds.

The Tunable Laser Spectrometer, one of the tools within the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) laboratory on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. By measuring absorption of light at specific wavelengths, it measures concentrations of methane, carbon dioxide and water vapor in Mars' atmosphere. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
The Tunable Laser Spectrometer, one of the tools within the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) laboratory on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. By measuring absorption of light at specific wavelengths, it measures concentrations of methane, carbon dioxide and water vapor in Mars’ atmosphere. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Methane, of the simplest organic compounds, was detected using the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument (SAM). This is one of two compact laboratory instruments embedded inside the compact car-sized rover, Curiosity. Very soon after landing on Mars, the scientists began to use SAM to periodically measure the chemical content of the Martian atmosphere. Over many samples, the level of Methane was very low, ~0.9 parts per billion. However, that suddenly changed and, as scientists stated in the press conference, it was a “wow” moment that took them aback. Brief daily spikes in Methane levels averaging 7 parts per billion were detected.

The detection of methane at Mars has been claimed for decades, but more recently, in 2003 and 2004, independent research teams using sensitive spectrometers on Earth detected methane in the atmosphere of Mars. One group led by Vladimir Krasnopolsky of Catholic University, and another led by Dr. Michael Mumma from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, detected broad regional and temporal levels of Methane as high as 30 parts per billion. Those announcements met with considerable skepticism from the scientific community. And the first atmospheric measurements by Curiosity were negative. However, neither group backed down from their claims.

Regions where methane appears notably localized in Northern Summer (A, B1, B2), andtheir relationship to mineralogical and geo-morphological domains. (A.) Observations of methane near the Syrtis Major volcanic district. (B.) Geologic map of Greeley and Guest (41) superimposed on the topographic shaded-relief from MOLA (42). The most ancient terrain (Npld, Nple) is Noachian in age (~3.6 - 4.5 billion years old, when Mars was wet), and is overlain by volcanic deposits from Syrtis Major of Hesperian (Hs) age (~3.1 - 3.6 billion yrs old). (Credit: Mumma, et al., 2009, Figure 3)
Regions where methane appears notably localized in Northern Summer (A, B1, B2), and their relationship to mineralogical and geo-morphological domains. (A.) Observations of methane near the Syrtis Major volcanic district. (B.) Geologic map of Greeley and Guest (41) superimposed on the topographic shaded-relief from MOLA (42). The most ancient terrain (Npld, Nple) is Noachian in age (~3.6 – 4.5 billion years old, when Mars was wet), and is overlain by volcanic deposits from Syrtis Major of Hesperian (Hs) age (~3.1 – 3.6 billion yrs old). (Credit: Mumma, et al., 2009, Figure 3)

The sudden detection of ten-fold spikes in methane levels in Gale crater is not inconsistent with the earlier remote measurements from Earth. The high seasonal concentrations were in regions that do not include Gale Crater, and it remains possible that the Curiosity measurements are of a similar nature but due to some less active process than exists at the regions identified by Dr. Mumma’s team.

This graphic shows tenfold spiking in the abundance of methane in the Martian atmosphere surrounding NASA's Curiosity Mars rover, as detected by a series of measurements made with the Tunable Laser Spectrometer instrument in the rover's Sample Analysis at Mars laboratory suite. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
This graphic shows tenfold spiking in the abundance of methane in the Martian atmosphere surrounding NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover, as detected by a series of measurements made with the Tunable Laser Spectrometer instrument in the rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars laboratory suite. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The NASA scientists at AGU led by MSL project scientist Dr. John Grotzinger emphasized that they do not yet know how the methane is being generated. The process could be biological or not. There are abiotic chemical processes that could produce methane. However, the MSL SAM detections were daily spikes and represent an active real on-going process on the red planet. This alone is a very exciting aspect of the detection.

The team presented slides to describe how methane could be generated. With the known low background levels of methane at ~ 1 part per billion, an external cosmic source, for example micro-meteoroids entering the atmosphere and releasing organics which is then reduced by sunlight to methane, could be ruled out. The methane source must be of local origin.

This image illustrates possible ways methane might be added to Mars' atmosphere (sources) and removed from the atmosphere (sinks). NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has detected fluctuations in methane concentration in the atmosphere, implying both types of activity occur on modern Mars. A longer caption discusses which are sources and which are sinks. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SAM-GSFC/Univ. of Michigan)
This image illustrates possible ways methane might be added to Mars’ atmosphere (sources) and removed from the atmosphere (sinks). NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has detected fluctuations in methane concentration in the atmosphere, implying both types of activity occur on modern Mars. A longer caption discusses which are sources and which are sinks. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SAM-GSFC/Univ. of Michigan)

The scientists illustrated two means of production. In both instances, there is some daily – or at least periodic – activity that is releasing methane from the subsurface of Mars. The source could be biological which is accumulated in subsurface rocks then suddenly released. Or an abiotic chemistry, such as a reaction between the mineral olivine and water, could be the generator.

The subsurface storage mechanism of methane proposed and illustrated is called clathrate storage. Clathrate storage involves lattice compounds that can trap molecules such as methane which can subsequently be released by physical changes in the clathrate, such as solar heating or mechanical stresses. Through press Q&A, the NASA scientists stated that such clathrates could be preserved for millions and billions of years underground.

The second discovery of organics involved more complex compounds in surface materials. Also since arriving at Mars, Curiosity has utilized a drilling tool to probe the interiors of rocks. Grotzinger emphasized how material immediately at the surface of Mars has experienced the effects of radiation and the ubiquitous soil compound perchlorate reducing and destroying organics both now and over millions of years. The detection of no organics in loose and exposed surface material had not diminished NASA scientists’ hopes of detecting organics in the rocks of Mars.

Comparisons between the amount of an organic chemical named chlorobenzene detected in the "Cumberland" rock sample and amounts of it in samples from three other Martian surface targets analyzed by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Comparisons between the amount of an organic chemical named chlorobenzene detected in the “Cumberland” rock sample and amounts of it in samples from three other Martian surface targets analyzed by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Drilling was performed on several selected rocks and it was finally a mud rock called Cumberland that revealed the presence of organic compounds more complex than simple methane. The scientists did emphasize that what exactly these organic compounds are remains a mystery because of the confounding presence of the active chemical perchlorate which can quickly breakdown organics to simpler forms.

Examples from the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) laboratory's detection of Martian organics in a sample of powder that the drill on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover collected from a rock target called "Cumberland." (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Examples from the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) laboratory’s detection of Martian organics in a sample of powder that the drill on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover collected from a rock target called “Cumberland.”
(Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The detection of organics in the mud rock Cumberland required the drilling tool and also the scoop on the multifaceted robotic arm to deliver the sample into the SAM laboratory for analysis. To detect methane, SAM has an intake valve to receive atmospheric samples.

Dr. Grotzinger described how Cumberland was chosen as a sample source. The rock is called a mud stone which has undergone a process called digenesis – the metamorphosis of sediment to rock. Grotzinger emphasized that fluids will move through such rock during digenesis and perchlorate can destroy organics in the process. Such might be the case for many metamorphic rocks on the Martian surface. The panel of scientists showed a comparison between rock samples measured by SAM. Two in particular – from the rock “John Klein” and the Cumberland rock — were compared. The former showed no organics as well as other rocks that were sampled; but Cumberland’s drill sample from its interior did reveal organics.

Illustration of some of the reasons why finding organic chemicals on Mars is challenging. Whatever organic chemicals may be produced on Mars or delivered to Mars face several possible modes of being transformed or destroyed. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Illustration of some of the reasons why finding organic chemicals on Mars is challenging. Whatever organic chemicals may be produced on Mars or delivered to Mars face several possible modes of being transformed or destroyed. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The analysis of the work was painstaking – harking back to the Sagan statement. The importance of discovering organics on Mars could not be understated by the panel of scientists and Grotzinger called these two discoveries as the lasting legacy of the Mars Curiosity Rover. Furthermore, he stated that the discovery and analysis methods will go far to guide the choice of instruments and their use during the Mars 2020 rover mission.

The discovery of organics completes the necessary set of “ingredients” for past or present life on Mars: 1) an energy source, 2) water, and 3) organics. These are the basic requirements for the existence of life as we know it. The search for life on Mars is still just beginning and the new discoveries of organics is still not a clear sign that life existed or is present today. Nevertheless, Dr. Jim Green, introducing the panel of scientists, and Dr. Grotzinger both emphasized the magnitude of these discoveries and how they are tied into the objectives of the NASA Mars program — particularly now with the emphasis on sending humans to Mars. For the Mars Curiosity rover, the journey up the slopes of Mount Sharp continues and now with greater earnestness and a continued search for rocks similar to Cumberland.

References:

Curiosity detects methane spike on Mars

NASA Rover Finds Active, Ancient Organic Chemistry on Mars

Research Papers, AGU Press Conerence via Ustream

Strong Release of Methane on Mars in Northern Summer 2003

Non-Detection of Methane in the Mars Atmosphere by the Curiosity Rover

Detection of methane in the martian atmosphere: evidence for life?

What Strange Places Are Habitable?

What Strange Places are Habitable

Everywhere we look on Earth, we find life. Even in the strangest corners of planet. What other places in the Universe might be habitable?

There’s life here on Earth, but what other places could there be life? This could be life that we might recognize, and maybe even life as we don’t understand it.

People always accuse me of being closed minded towards the search for life. Why do I always want there to be an energy source and liquid water? Why am I so hydrocentric? Scientists understand how life works here on Earth. Wherever we find liquid water, we find life: under glaciers, in your armpits, hydrothermal vents, in acidic water, up your nose, etc.

Water acts as a solvent, a place where atoms can be moved around and built into new structures by life forms. It makes sense to search for liquid water as it always seems to have life here. So where could we go searching for liquid water in the rest of the Universe?

Under the surface of Europa, there are deep oceans. They’re warmed by the gravitational interactions of Jupiter tidally flexing the surface of the moon. There could be life huddled around volcanic vents within its ocean. There’s a similar situation in Saturn’s Moon Enceladus, which is spewing out water ice into space; there might be vast reserves of liquid water underneath its surface. You could imagine a habitable moon orbiting a gas giant in another star system, or maybe you can just let George Lucas imagine it for you and fill it with Ewoks.

The white dwarf G29-38 (Image Credit: NASA)
The white dwarf G29-38 (Image Credit: NASA)

Let’s look further afield. What about dying white dwarf stars? Even though their main sequence days are over, they’re still giving off a lot of energy, and will slowly cool down over the coming billions of years. Brown dwarfs could get in on this action as well. Even though they never had enough mass to ignite solar fusion, they’re still generating heat. This could provide a safe warm place for planets to harbor life.

It gets a little trickier in either of these systems. White and brown dwarfs would have very narrow habitable zones, maybe 1/100th the size of the one in our Solar System. And it might shift too quickly for life to get started or survive for very long. This is our view, what we know life to be with water as a solvent. But astrobiologists have found other liquids that might work well as solvents too.

Artist concept of Methane-Ethane lakes on Titan (Credit: Copyright 2008 Karl Kofoed).  Click for larger version.
Artist concept of Methane-Ethane lakes on Titan (Credit: Copyright 2008 Karl Kofoed). Click for larger version.

What about life forms that live in oceans of liquid methane on Titan, or creatures that use silicon or boron instead of carbon. It might just not be science fiction after all. It’s a vast Universe out there, stranger than we can imagine. Astronomers are looking for life wherever makes sense – wherever there’s liquid water. And if they don’t find any there, they’ll start looking places that don’t make sense.

What do you think? When we first find life, what will be its core building block? Silicon? Boron? or something even more exotic?

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What Are Comet Tails?

Comets are renowned for their big beautiful tails that stretch across the sky. But what’s in those things, anyway? And how can comets get multiple tails?

In the past, humans generally used one of two greetings for comets:
1. Dear God, what is that thing? Terrible omens! Surely we will all die in fire.
2. Dear God, what is that thing? Great omens! Surely we will all have a big party… where we all die in fire?

For example, the appearance of what came to be known as Halley’s comet in 1066 was seen as a bad omen for King Harold II. Conversely, it was a good omen for William the Conqueror.

Because of their tails and transitory nature, comets were long thought to be products of the Earth’s atmosphere. It wasn’t until the 1500s, when Tycho Brahe used parallax to determine a comet’s distance. He realized that they were Solar System objects, like planets.

So, good news, we no longer regard them as omens and everyone stopped panicking. Right? Wrong. When Comet Halley approached Earth in 1910, astronomers detected cyanide gas in its tail. French astronomer Camille Flammarion was quoted as saying the gas could “impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.” This caused a great deal of hysteria. Many bought gas masks and “comet pills” to protect themselves.

With the rise of photographic astronomy, it was found that comets often have two types of tails. A bright tail composed of ionized gas, and a dimmer one composed of dust particles. The ion tail always points away from the Sun. It’s actually being pushed away from the comet by the solar wind.

Comets often develop two tails as they near the sun - a curved dust tail and straight, ion tail. Credit: NASA
Comets often develop two tails as they near the sun – a curved dust tail and straight, ion tail. Credit: NASA

We now know that a comet’s ion tail contains “volatiles” such as water, methane, ammonia and carbon dioxide. These volatiles are frozen near the comet’s surface, and as they approach the Sun, they warm and become gaseous. This also causes dust on the comet’s surface to stream away. The heating of a comet by the Sun is not uniform.

Because of a comet’s irregular shape and rotation, some parts of the surface can be heated by sunlight, while other parts remain cold. In some cases this can mean that comets can have multiple tails, which creates amazing effects where different regions of a comet stream off volatiles.

Comet Lovejoy passing behind green oxygen and sodium airglow layers on December 22, 2011 seen from the space station. Credit: NASA/Dan Burbank
Comet Lovejoy passing behind green oxygen and sodium airglow layers on December 22, 2011 seen from the space station. Credit: NASA/Dan Burbank

These ion tails can be quite large, and some have been observed to be nearly 4 times the distance of the Earth from the Sun. And even though they fill a great volume, they are also pretty diffuse. If you condensed a comet’s tail down to the density of water, it wouldn’t even fill a swimming pool.

We also now know that there isn’t a clear dividing line between comets and asteroids. It’s not the case the comets are dirty snowballs and asteroids are dry rocks. There is a range of variation, and asteroids can gain dusty or gaseous tails and take on a comet-like appearance. In addition, we’ve also found comets orbiting other stars, known as exocomets.

And finally one last fact, the term comet comes from the Latin cometa, which indicated a hairy star.

So, what’s your favorite comet? Tell us in the comets below. And if you like what you see, come check out our Patreon page and find out how you can get these videos early while helping us bring you more great content!

What’s Inside Jupiter?

Jupiter is like a jawbreaker. Dig down beneath the swirling clouds and you’ll pass through layer after layer of exotic forms of hydrogen. What’s down there, deep within Jupiter?

What’s inside Jupiter? Is it chameleons? Candy? Cake? Cheddar? Chemtrails? No one knows. No one can ever know.

Well, that’s not entirely true… or even remotely true. Jupiter is the largest planet in the Solar System and two and a half times the mass of the other planets combined. It’s a gas giant, like Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. It’s almost 90% hydrogen and 10% helium, and then other trace materials, like methane, ammonia, water and some other stuff. What would be a gas on Earth behaves in very strange ways under Jupiter’s massive pressure and temperatures.

So what’s deep down inside Jupiter? What are the various layers and levels, and can I keep thinking of it like a jawbreaker? At the very center of Jupiter is its dense core. Astronomers aren’t sure if there’s a rocky region deep down inside. It’s actually possible that there’s twelve to forty five Earth masses of rocky material within the planet’s core. Now this could be rock, or hydrogen and helium under such enormous forces that it just acts that way. But you couldn’t stand on it. The temperatures are 35,000 degrees C. The pressures are incomprehensible.

Surrounding the core is a vast region made up of hydrogen. But it’s not a gas. The pressure and temperature transforms the hydrogen into an exotic form of liquid metallic hydrogen, similar to the liquid mercury you’d see in a thermometer. This metallic hydrogen region turns inside the planet, and acts like an electric dynamo. Similar to our planet’s own iron core, this gives the planet a powerful magnetic field.

The next level up is still liquid hydrogen, but the pressure’s lower, so it’s not metallic any more. And then above this is the planet’s atmosphere. The upper layers of Jupiter’s atmosphere is the only part we can see. Those bands on the planet are clouds of ammonia that rotate around the planet in alternating directions. The lighter color zones are colder ammonia ice upwelling from below. Here’s the exciting part. Astronomers aren’t sure what the darker regions are.

This animated gif shows Voyager 1's approach to Jupiter during a period of over 60 Jupiter days in 1979.  Credit: NASA.
This animated gif shows Voyager 1’s approach to Jupiter during a period of over 60 Jupiter days in 1979. Credit: NASA.

Still think you want to descend into Jupiter, to try and walk on its rocky interior? NASA tried that. In order to protect Jupiter’s moons from contamination, NASA decided to crash the Galileo spacecraft into the planet at the end of its mission. It only got point two percent of the way down through Jupiter’s radius before it was completely destroyed.

Jupiter is a remarkably different world from our own. With all that gravity, normally lightweight hydrogen behaves in completely exotic ways. Hopefully in the future we’ll learn more about this amazing planet we share our Solar System with.

What do you think? Is there a rocky core deep down inside Jupiter?

And if you like what you see, come check out our Patreon page and find out how you can get these videos early while helping us bring you more great content!

A New Mantra: Follow the Methane — May Advance Search for Extraterrestrial Life

The search for life is largely limited to the search for water. We look for exoplanets at the correct distances from their stars for water to flow freely on their surfaces, and even scan radiofrequencies in the “water hole” between the 1,420 MHz emission line of neutral hydrogen and the 1,666 MHz hydroxyl line.

When it comes to extraterrestrial life, our mantra has always been to “follow the water.” But now, it seems, astronomers are turning their eyes away from water and toward methane — the simplest organic molecule, also widely accepted to be a sign of potential life.

Astronomers at the University College London (UCL) and the University of New South Wales have created a powerful new methane-based tool to detect extraterrestrial life, more accurately than ever before.

In recent years, more consideration has been given to the possibility that life could develop in other mediums besides water. One of the most interesting possibilities is liquid methane, inspired by the icy moon Titan, where water is as solid as rock and liquid methane runs through the river valleys and into the polar lakes. Titan even has a methane cycle.

Astronomers can detect methane on distant exoplanets by looking at their so-called transmission spectrum. When a planet transits, the star’s light passes through a thin layer of the planet’s atmosphere, which absorbs certain wavelengths of the light. Once the starlight reaches Earth it will be imprinted with the chemical fingerprints of the atmosphere’s composition.

But there’s always been one problem. Astronomers have to match transmission spectra to spectra collected in the laboratory or determined on a supercomputer. And “current models of methane are incomplete, leading to a severe underestimation of methane levels on planets,” said co-author Jonathan Tennyson from UCL in a press release.

So Sergei Yurchenko, Tennyson and colleagues set out to develop a new spectrum for methane. They used supercomputers to calculate about 10 billion lines — 2,000 times bigger than any previous study. And they probed much higher temperatures. The new model may be used to detect the molecule at temperatures above that of Earth, up to 1,500 K.

“We are thrilled to have used this technology to significantly advance beyond previous models available for researchers studying potential life on astronomical objects, and we are eager to see what our new spectrum helps them discover,” said Yurchenko.

The tool has already successfully reproduced the way in which methane absorbs light in brown dwarfs, and helped correct our previous measurements of exoplanets. For example, Yurchenko and colleagues found that the hot Jupiter, HD 189733b, a well-studied exoplanet 63 light-years from Earth, might have 20 times more methane than previously thought.

The paper has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and may be viewed here.

India’s First Mars Probe ‘MOM’ Blasts Free of Earth Joining MAVEN in Race to Red Planet

CAPE CANAVERAL, FL – India’s first ever Mars probe ‘MOM’ successfully fired its main engine today (Dec. 1), blasting the craft free of the Earth’s sphere of influence forever to begin her nearly yearlong momentous voyage to the Red Planet.

Indian space engineers initiated the 440 Newton liquid fueled engine firing precisely as planned at 00:49 hrs (IST) on Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013 during a critical nail-biting burn lasting some 22 minutes.

The Trans Mars Insertion (TMI) firing propelled India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) away from Earth forever and placed the spacecraft on course for a rendezvous with the Red Planet on September 24, 2014 – where it will study the atmosphere and sniff for signals of methane.

Sunday’s Mars insertion burn imparted the vehicle with an incremental velocity of 647.96 meters per second (m/sec) consuming 198 kg of fuel.

Trans Mars Injection (TMI), carried out on Dec 01, 2013 at 00:49 hrs (IST) has moved the spacecraft in the Mars Transfer Trajectory (MTT). With TMI the Earth orbiting phase of the spacecraft ended and the spacecraft is now on a course to encounter Mars after a journey of about 10 months around the Sun. Credit: ISRO
Trans Mars Injection (TMI), carried out on Dec 01, 2013 at 00:49 hrs (IST) has moved the spacecraft in the Mars Transfer Trajectory (MTT). With TMI the Earth orbiting phase of the spacecraft ended and the spacecraft is now on a course to encounter Mars after a journey of about 10 months around the Sun. Credit: ISRO

The maneuver dubbed ‘The mother of all slingshots’, enabled MOM to finally achieve escape velocity and catapulted the 1,350 kilogram (2,980 pound) spacecraft on an historic flight streaking towards Mars.

And in a rare but rather delightful coincidence, MOM is not alone on her remarkable Martian sojourn. Following the triumphant engine burn, she now joins NASA’s MAVEN orbiter in a gallant marathon race to the Red Planet.

MOM was designed and developed by the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) at a cost of $69 Million and marks India’s inaugural foray into interplanetary flight.

“The Earth orbiting phase of the spacecraft ended,” with this maneuver said ISRO.

MOM is healthy and all systems are functioning normally.

While MOM was cycling Earth, ISRO scientists and engineers activated and tested the probes systems and science payloads.

They also turned the crafts color camera homewards to capture the “First ever image of Earth Taken by Mars Color Camera,” according to ISRO.

First ever image of Earth Taken by Mars Color Camera aboard India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft currently orbiting Earth prior to upcoming Trans Mars Insertion. Image is focused on the Indian subcontinent.  Credit: ISRO
First ever image of Earth Taken by Mars Color Camera aboard India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft currently orbiting Earth prior to upcoming Trans Mars Insertion. Image is focused on the Indian subcontinent. Credit: ISRO

MOM is nicknamed ‘Mangalyaan’ – which in Hindi means ‘Mars craft.’

MOM’s journey bagen with a picture perfect Nov. 5 liftoff atop India’s highly reliable four stage Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) C25 from ISRO’s Satish Dhawan Space Centre SHAR, Sriharikota.

The PSLV booster precisely injected MOM into an initial elliptical Earth parking orbit of 247 x 23556 kilometers with an inclination of 19.2 degrees.

PSLV does not have sufficient thrust to send MOM streaking directly to the Red Planet.

Therefore since the flawless launch, the engine has been fired 6 times on November 7, 8, 9, 11, and 16 plus one supplementary maneuver to gradually raise the spacecrafts apogee from 23556 km to 192,874 km.

The most recent orbit raising maneuver occurred on Nov 16, 2013 with a burn time of 243.5 seconds and increased the apogee from 118,642 km to 192,874 km.

Liquid fueled engine fires and successfully propels MOM into Mars Transfer Trajectory on Dec. 1, 2013 and India into interplanetary space !  Credit: ISRO
Liquid fueled engine fires and successfully propels MOM into Mars Transfer Trajectory on Dec. 1, 2013 and India into interplanetary space ! Credit: ISRO

Today’s burn was the final one around Earth and absolutely crucial for setting her on course for Mars.

MOM was the first of two missions dispatched to Mars by Earthlings this November.

Half a world away, NASA’s MAVEN orbiter blasted off on Nov. 18 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida atop an Atlas V booster on a direct path to the Red Planet.

The MOM spacecraft is now on traveling on a heliocentric elliptical trajectory to begin a 300 day long interplanetary voyage of more than 700 Million kilometers (400 Million miles) to the Red Planet.

Along the path to Mars, ISRO plans to conduct a series of Trajectory Correction Maneuvers (TCMs) using MOM’s Attitude and Orbit Control System (AOCS) thrusters to precisely navigate the probe to the point required to achieve orbit around the Red Planet

Following the ten month cruise through space the orbital insertion engine will fire for a do or die burn on September 24, 2014 placing MOM into an 377 km x 80,000 km elliptical orbit around Mars.

MOM will reach Mars vicinity just two days after MAVEN’s arrival on Sept. 22, 2014.

If all continues to goes well, India will join an elite club of only four who have launched probes that successfully investigated the Red Planet from orbit or the surface – following the Soviet Union, the United States and the European Space Agency (ESA).

Both MAVEN and MOM’s goal is to study the Martian atmosphere, unlock the mysteries of its current atmosphere and determine how, why and when the atmosphere and liquid water was lost – and how this transformed Mars climate into its cold, desiccated state of today.

Although MOM’s main objective is a demonstration of technological capabilities, the probe is equipped with five indigenous instruments to conduct meaningful science – including a multi color imager and a methane gas sniffer to study the Red Planet’s atmosphere, morphology, mineralogy and surface features. Methane on Earth originates from both geological and biological sources – and could be a potential marker for the existence of Martian microbes.

MOM’s 15 kg (33 lb) science suite comprises:

MCM: the tri color Mars Color Camera images the planet and its two tiny moons, Phobos and Deimos

LAP: the Lyman Alpha Photometer measures the abundance of hydrogen and deuterium to understand the planets water loss process

TIS: the Thermal Imaging Spectrometer will map surface composition and mineralogy

MENCA: the Mars Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyser is a quadrapole mass spectrometer to analyze atmospheric composition

MSM: the Methane Sensor for Mars measures traces of potential atmospheric methane down to the ppm level.

Scientists will be paying close attention to whether MOM detects any atmospheric methane to compare with measurements from NASA’s Curiosity rover – which found ground level methane to be essentially nonexistent – and Europe’s upcoming 2016 ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter.

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India’s MOM – ‘Mangalyaan’ mission is expected to continue gathering measurements at the Red Planet for at least six months and hopefully much longer.

MAVEN could operate for a decade or longer and is also crucial for relaying images and data collected by NASA’s current and upcoming surface rovers and landers.

Although they were developed independently and have different suites of scientific instruments, the MAVEN and MOM science teams will “work together” to unlock the secrets of Mars atmosphere and climate history, MAVEN’s top scientist told Universe Today.

“We have had some discussions with their science team, and there are some overlapping objectives,” Bruce Jakosky told me. Jakosky is MAVEN’s principal Investigator from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“At the point where we [MAVEN and MOM] are both in orbit collecting data we do plan to collaborate and work together with the data jointly,” Jakosky said.

Stay tuned here for continuing MOM and MAVEN news and Ken’s MAVEN and SpaceX Falcon 9 launch reports from on site at the Kennedy Space Center press center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Ken Kremer

MOM’s Last Night on Earth; Midnight Marvel for India’s Mars Mission – Live Webcast

It’ s a Mind-Blowing Midnight Marvel !
India’s fueled PSLV rocket and Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) await Nov. 5 blastoff at 14:38 hrs IST (9:08 UTC, 4:08 a.m. EST). Credit: ISRO.
Watch ISRO’s Live Webcast[/caption]

MOM is spending her last night on Earth – and she’s a Mind-Blowing Midnight Marvel !

The pride of all India, and everyone’s favorite MOM is healthy and set to embark on the nation’s first ever interplanetary voyage of exploration. She aims to conduct a detailed study of the Martian atmosphere and sniff for methane – a potential indicator for life.

The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) was designed and developed by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) which is broadcasting a live webcast of the launch starting at 14:00 hrs IST, 3:30 a.m. EST at – http://isro.org/

“All vehicle systems have been switched ON,” as of now, says ISRO.

Now less than 8 hours from blastoff, the PSLV-C25 booster rocket is fully fueled and poised to streak from ISRO’s Satish Dhawan Space Centre SHAR, Sriharikota, located on India’s east coast in Andhra Pradesh state.

If all goes well with MOM, India joins an elite club of four who have launched probes that successfully investigated the Red Planet from orbit or the surface – following the Soviet Union, the United States and the European Space Agency (ESA).

Reaching Mars successfully is an enormous technological challenge. More than half of all Earth’s attempts have failed. But those who fail to ‘dare mighty things’ are doomed to timidity and ignominy.

Gorgeous view of the majestic Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, PSLV C25 with its passenger, the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO's) Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft inside. The Mobile service tower is also seen in the background.  Credit: IRSO
Gorgeous view of the majestic Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, PSLV C25 with its passenger, the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO’s) Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft inside. The Mobile service tower is also seen in the background. Credit: IRSO

ISRO reports that the weather outlook is favorable for an on time launch on Nov 05, 2013 at 14:38 hrs IST (9:08 UTC, 4:08 a.m. EST).

“Weather Forecast for launch day based on today’s image from Kalpana Meteorological Satellite: Early morning, cloudy and low probability of Rain, No severe weather expected. During launch window – partly cloudy weather and no rain is expected.”

“Looks like we are heading towards a bright and sunny day for the launch,” says ISRO.

Today's weather image from India’s Kalpana Meteorological Satellite. Credit: ISRO
Today’s weather image from India’s Kalpana Meteorological Satellite. Credit: ISRO

Just hours ago the final loading of propellants into the rocket’s liquid fueled second stage (PS2) with highly toxic nitrogen tetroxide and hydrazine was satisfactorily completed.

The launch gantry has been retracted to a distance of 50 meters and the 44 meter (144 foot) tall four stage PSLV booster stands at the ready under the gaze of the starry night.

Two tracking ships – SCI Nalanda and SCI Yamuna – have been deployed to the Indian Ocean.

They are now in position to relay critical in flight telemetry during the ignition of the PSLV-C25 fourth stage and the spacecraft’s separation from the rocket at T plus 44 minutes.

“For about ten minutes between the separation of third stage of PSLV and ignition of fourth stage the vehicle will not be visible from any ground stations as will be evident in the Live telecast,” says ISRO.

Tracking MOM !  Credit: ISRO
Tracking MOM ! Credit: ISRO

And the launch team is leaving no stone unturned to ensure success!

“As the country gets embraced in deep sleep – don’t forget a few hundred tireless minds at ISRO – rock-steady on their consoles and keeping their strict vigil on the several health parameters of the rocket and the MoM spacecraft,” said ISRO in a statement.

And here’s a poetic tribute to MOM from ISRO

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MOM is the first of two new Mars orbiter science probes from Earth set to blast off for the Red Planet this November. On the other side of Earth, NASA’s MAVEN orbiter remains on target to launch barely two weeks after MOM on Nov. 18 – from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The 1,350 kilogram (2,980 pound) MOM orbiter is also known as‘Mangalyaan’ – which in Hindi means ‘Mars craft.’

‘Mangalyaan’ is outfitted with an array of five indigenous science instruments including a multi color imager and a methane gas sniffer to study the Red Planet’s atmosphere, morphology, mineralogy and surface features. Methane on Earth originates from both geological and biological sources – and could be a potential marker for the existence of Martian microbes.

The PSLV will inject MOM into an initially elliptical Earth parking orbit of 248 km x 23,500 km. A series of six orbit raising burns will eventually place MOM on a trajectory to Mars around December 1.

Tracking the MOM Mission! A complex network of ground stations, as indicated in the image, has been laid out for keeping an eye on the various phases of PSLV-C25/ ISRO's Mars Orbiter Mission, including the launch, Earth bound maneuvers, Heliocentric phase as well as the Martian phase.  Additionally, two ship borne terminals have also been deployed in the southern Pacific Ocean to cover critical events during the launch phase. After satellite separation from the launch vehicle, the Spacecraft  operations are controlled from the Spacecraft Control Centre of ISRO Telemetry, Tracking And Command Network (ISTRAC) in Bangalore.
Tracking the MOM Mission!
A complex network of ground stations, as indicated in the image, has been laid out for keeping an eye on the various phases of PSLV-C25/ ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission, including the launch, Earth bound maneuvers, Heliocentric phase as well as the Martian phase. Additionally, two ship borne terminals have also been deployed in the southern Pacific Ocean to cover critical events during the launch phase. After satellite separation from the launch vehicle, the Spacecraft operations are controlled from the Spacecraft Control Centre of ISRO Telemetry, Tracking And Command Network (ISTRAC) in Bangalore.

Following a 300 day interplanetary cruise phase, the do or die orbital insertion engine will fire on September 24, 2014 and place MOM into an 366 km x 80,000 km elliptical orbit.

MOM and MAVEN both arrive in Mars orbit within days of one another next September – joining Earth’s invasion fleet of five operational orbiters and intrepid surface rovers currently unveiling the mysteries of the Red Planet.


MAVEN’s goal
is to study Mars atmosphere in unprecedented detail. The MAVEN and MOM science teams will “work together” to unlock the secrets of Mars atmosphere, MAVEN’s top scientist told Universe Today.

“We have had some discussions with their science team, and there are some overlapping objectives,” Bruce Jakosky told me. Jakosky is MAVEN’s principal Investigator from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“At the point where we [MAVEN and MOM] are both in orbit collecting data we do plan to collaborate and work together with the data jointly,” Jakosky said.

Godspeed MOM !

Ken Kremer

Pictures From T-86: Cassini’s Latest Flyby of Titan

On September 26-27 Cassini executed its latest flyby of Titan, T-86, coming within 594 miles (956 km) of the cloud-covered moon in order to measure the effects of the Sun’s energy on its dense atmosphere and determine its variations at different altitudes.

The image above was captured as Cassini approached Titan from its night side, traveling about 13,000 mph (5.9 km/s). It’s a color-composite made from three separate raw images acquired in red, green and blue visible light filters.

Titan’s upper-level hydrocarbon haze is easily visible as a blue-green “shell” above its orange-colored clouds.

Cassini captured this image as it approached Titan’s sunlit limb, grabbing a better view of the upper haze. Some banding can be seen in its highest reaches.

The haze is the result of UV light from the Sun breaking down nitrogen and methane in Titan’s atmosphere, forming hydrocarbons that rise up and collect at altitudes of 300-400 kilometers. The sea-green coloration is a denser photochemical layer that extends upwards from about 200 km altitude.

In this image, made from data acquired on Sept. 27, Titan’s south polar vortex can be made out just within the southern terminator. The vortex is a relatively new feature in Titan’s atmosphere, first spotted earlier this year. It’s thought that it’s a region of open-cell convection forming above the moon’s pole, a result of the approach of winter to Titan’s southern half.

Read: Cassini Spots Surprising Swirls Above Titan’s South Pole

This T-86 flyby was was one of a handful of opportunities to profile Titan’s ionosphere from the outermost edge of Titan’s atmosphere. In addition Cassini was able to look for any changes to Ligeia Mare, a methane lake last observed in spring of 2007.

Now that Titan has been under scrutiny for a full year of Saturn’s seasons — which lasts 29.7 Earth-years — astronomers now know that varying amounts of solar radiation can drastically change situations both within Saturn’s atmosphere and on its surface.

“As with Earth, conditions on Titan change with its seasons. We can see differences in atmospheric temperatures, chemical composition and circulation patterns, especially at the poles,” said Dr. Athena Coustenis from the Paris-Meudon Observatory in France. “For example, hydrocarbon lakes form around the north polar region during winter due to colder temperatures and condensation. Also, a haze layer surrounding Titan at the northern pole is significantly reduced during the equinox because of the atmospheric circulation patterns. This is all very surprising because we didn’t expect to find any such rapid changes, especially in the deeper layers of the atmosphere.”

“It’s amazing to think that the Sun still dominates over other energy sources even as far out as Titan, over 1.5 billion kilometres from us.”
– Dr. Athena Coustenis, Paris-Meudon Observatory

The image above, acquired on Sept. 28, was added to this post on Oct. 1. It was taken from a distance of  649,825 miles (1,045,792 kilometers.)

Cassini’s next targeted approach to Titan — T-87 — will occur on November 13.

Get more news from the Cassini mission here.

Image credits: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. All color composites by Jason Major. Images have not been validated or calibrated by the SSI team.

 

(Do you love the Cassini mission as much as we do? Vote on your favorite Cassini “Shining Moment” here, in honor of the 15th anniversary of Cassini’s launch on October 15! Amazing to think it’s already been 15 years — 8 of those in orbit around Saturn!)