Accurately Forecasting the Weather on Mars and Titan

Even meteorologists who forecast the weather on Earth admit that they can’t always accurately predict the weather at a specific location on our planet any given time. And so, attempting to forecast the atmospheric conditions on another world can be downright impossible.

But a new study suggests that an oft-used forecasting technique on Earth can be applied to other worlds as well, such as on Mars or Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.

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Dragonfly Mission has Some Ambitious Science Goals to Accomplish When it Arrives at Titan

As any good project manager will tell you, goals are necessary to complete any successful project.  The more audacious the goal, the more potentially successful the project will be.  But bigger goals are harder to hit, leading to an increased chance of failure.  So when the team behind one of NASA’s most unique missions released a list of goals this week, the space exploration world took notice.  One thing is clear – Dragonfly will not lack ambition.

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A Titan Mission Could Refuel on Site and Return a Sample to Earth

This decade promises to be an exciting time for space exploration! Already, the Perseverance rover landed on Mars and began conducting science operations. Later this year, the next-generation James Webb Space Telescope, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), and Lucy spacecraft (the first mission to Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids) will launch. Before the decade is out, missions will also be sent to Europa and Titan to extend the search for signs of life in our Solar System.

Currently, NASA’s plan for exploring Titan (Saturn’s largest moon) is to send a nuclear-powered quadcopter to explore the atmosphere and surface (named Dragonfly). However, another possibility that was presented this year as part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program is to send a sample-return vehicle with Dragonfly that could fuel up using liquid methane harvested from Titan’s surface.

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Titan’s Atmosphere Recreated in an Earth Laboratory

A global mosaic of the surface of Titan, thanks to the infrared eyes of the Cassini spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Nantes/University of Arizona

Beyond Earth, the general scientific consensus is that the best place to search for evidence of extraterrestrial life is Mars. However, it is by no means the only place. Aside from the many extrasolar planets that have been designated as “potentially-habitable,” there are plenty of other candidates right here in our Solar System. These include the many icy satellites that are thought to have interior oceans that could harbor life.

Among them is Titan, Saturn’s largest moon that has all kinds of organic chemistry taking place between its atmosphere and surface. For some time, scientists have suspected that the study of Titan’s atmosphere could yield vital clues to the early stages of the evolution of life on Earth. Thanks to new research led by tech-giant IBM, a team of researchers has managed to recreate atmospheric conditions on Titan in a laboratory.

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Saturn Got Its Tilt From Its Moons

One of the fundamental tenets of physics is that two objects, now matter how different their size, exert a force on each other. In most cases the size makes a big difference, with the larger objects enacting a much greater force on the smaller one. 

However, over long periods of time, even much smaller objects can have an effect on the larger object in the pair.  Recently a team of researchers from CNRS, the Sorbonne, and the University of Pisa have found an example of the smaller object, or in this case group of objects, having an outsized impact on the larger one.  They have discovered that Saturn’s moons actually caused its famous tilt.

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Titan’s Atmosphere Has All the Ingredients For Life. But Not Life as We Know It

A global mosaic of the surface of Titan, thanks to the infrared eyes of the Cassini spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Nantes/University of Arizona

Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), a team of scientists has identified a mysterious molecule in Titan’s atmosphere. It’s called cyclopropenylidene (C3H2), a simple carbon-based compound that has never been seen in an atmosphere before. According to the team’s study published in The Astronomical Journal, this molecule could be a precursor to more complex compounds that could indicate possible life on Titan.

Similarly, Dr. Catherine Neish of the University of Western Ontario’s Institute for Earth and Space Exploration (Western Space) and her colleagues in the European Space Agency (ESA) found that Titan has other chemicals that could be the ingredients for exotic life forms. In their study, which appeared in Astronomy & Astrophysics, they present Cassini mission data that revealed the composition of impact craters on Titan’s surface.

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Impatient? A Spacecraft Could Get to Titan in Only 2 Years Using a Direct Fusion Drive

Fusion power is the technology that is thirty years away, and always will be – according to skeptics at least.  Despite its difficult transition into a reliable power source, the nuclear reactions that power the sun have a wide variety of uses in other fields.  The most obvious is in weapons, where hydrogen bombs are to this day the most powerful weapons we have ever produced. But there’s another use case that is much less destructive and could prove much more interesting – space drives.

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Lakes On Titan Will Have Layers, Like Lakes On Earth, But for a Completely Different Reason

Lakes on Earth are a common sight in many locales.  They’re central to the recreation and livelihood of millions of people.  Few of those people think of the hydrodynamics that happen in a lake system.  It is common for lakes to stratify into different layers. On Earth that stratification is the result of the sun heating the upper layer of water, which then becomes less dense and floats on top of the colder, more dense layer beneath it.  Now, scientists from the Planetary Science Institute (PSI) have found similar dynamic cycles in a different kind of lake – the ethane and methane lakes on Titan.

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Sunrises Across the Solar System

Scientists have learned a lot about the atmospheres on various worlds in our Solar System simply from planetary sunrises or sunsets. Sunlight streaming through the haze of an atmosphere can be separated into its component colors to create spectra, just as prisms do with sunlight. From the spectra, astronomers can interpret the measurements of light to reveal the chemical makeup of an atmosphere.

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