Catherine Neish counts the days until her space start. While the Western planetary geologist does not fit into space for her own interstellar journey, she plays a key role in an international mission – sending a robotic drone to Saturn’s moon Titan – set to explode in 2027.
For nearly two decades, the global space sector has focused a majority of its resources and research on Mars in search of the building blocks of life. And yet there are dynamic worlds like Saturn’s moon Titan, which may actually have more going on biologically than the red planet.
In a recent study published by Astronomy and astrophysics, Neish – a member of Western’s Institute for Earth and Space Exploration (Western Space) – and her collaborators at the European Space Agency (ESA) used advanced imaging technology to study Titan. They found that when impact craters form on Saturn’s largest moon, it releases relatively fresh ‘water ice’ from Titan’s icy crust.
On Titan, atmospheric processes bury the ice beneath a layer of sand-like organic material. In Titan’s arid equatorial regions, the sand piles up; but at higher, wetter latitudes, surface currents erode the sand away.
It’s difficult to assess what lies beneath Titan’s obscure atmosphere – unless, of course, you have a multi-million dollar visible and infrared mapping spectrometer like ESAs that collected both visible light for humans and slightly longer wavelength infrared light under NASA’s Cassini mission.
“It’s wild. There’s no other place like Titan in the solar system. There’s more sand on Titan per Area than anywhere else,” Neish said.
“Titan has weather. It’s not unlike the ground that way. It’s just that the ingredients are wrong. It has methane rain and streams that cut through the surface and organic sand is blown around. It’s still very active, just like it is here on Earth, “Neish said.
These findings could prove beneficial in discovering ancient ecosystems frozen at the bottom of impact craters, and will also be invaluable when developing data analysis and surveillance techniques for the upcoming Dragonfly drone mission to Titan.
As interest in Titan and other planetary bodies grows, Neish feels that the global space sector is ready to look beyond Mars for the existence of life – though the red planet remains the primary destination for NASA, the Canadian space agency and giant Hollywood filmmakers. .
“I think more and more we see a false equivalence between life and Mars. The recent discoveries about Venus and all the new things we learn about it once we are an ocean world are another game changer,” Neish said. “Finally, people say, ‘In our quest for life in the universe, we really need to focus on many more places and not just Mars.’ And that includes NASA, which is sending the Dragonfly mission to Titan. ”
Evidence of volcanic craters on Saturn’s moon Titan
A. Solomonidou et al. The chemical composition of impact craters on Titan, Astronomy and astrophysics (2020). DOI: 10.1051 / 0004-6361 / 202037866
Provided by the University of Western Ontario
Citation: The recipe is different, but Saturn’s moon Titan has ingredients for life (2020, October 1) retrieved October 1, 2020 from https://phys.org/news/2020-10-recipe-saturn-moon-titan-ingredients. html
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