Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Splashing down on Titan’s oceans

02.04.2003


Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, is a mysterious place. Its thick atmosphere is rich in organic compounds. Some of them would be signs of life if they were on our planet. How do they form on Titan? Will they help us to discover how life began on Earth?



ESA’s Huygens probe, arriving at Titan in 2005, will help find answers. Here on Earth, ground-based telescopes are playing their part also. They will help scientists to decide how and where precisely Huygens will land. What will it be - on solid ground or in an ocean of methane?

NASA’s Voyager 1 provided the first detailed images of Titan in 1980. They showed only an opaque, orange atmosphere, apparently homogeneus. It was so thick that you could not see the surface. However, other data revealed exciting things. Similarly to Earth, Titan’s atmosphere is mostly nitrogen but there is also methane and many other organic compounds.


Organic compounds form when sunlight destroys the methane. If sunlight is continuously destroying methane, how is methane getting into the atmosphere? On Earth today, it is life itself that refreshes the methane supply. Methane is a by-product of the metabolism of many organisms. Could this mean there is life on Titan?

Titan is not a pleasant place for life. It is far too cold for liquid water to exist, and all known forms of life need liquid water. Titan’s surface is -180°C. According to one exotic theory, long ago, the impact of a meteorite, for example, might have provided enough heat to liquify water for perhaps a few hundred or thousand years. However, it is unlikely that Titan is a site for life today. Jean-Pierre Lebreton, Huygens Project Scientist, is puzzled by the amount of methane that persists in Titan’s atmosphere. Could there be oceans of methane on or under the surface?

Before Huygens arrival, planned for January 2005, astronomers will observe Titan using the most powerful ground-based telescopes. "More and more astronomers are pointing their instruments to this amazing cold world. And their results are helping us a lot," points out Lebreton. Images from the W. M. Keck Observatory reveal methane-containing clouds near Titan’s south pole. Could Titan have the equivalent of a weather cycle? Lebreton says "It is a major discovery. It means that the atmosphere is much more dynamic than we used to think." The NASA Cassini orbiter will clearly see these clouds, carrying out precise observations before, during and after releasing the Huygens probe.

Over the years, scientists have dramatically changed their minds about Titan’s surface. In the mid-nineties, the NASA-ESA Hubble Space Telescope spied an area on Titan that was brighter than the rest.

More recent observations show the same feature better. What are these bright and dark patches? Lebreton wonders if, "the bright area could be a continent and the rest oceans. We don’t know yet. There is no doubt, though, that the surface appears very diverse, not uniform. There are a lot of surprises waiting for us there."

Where will Huygens land? On the bright patch or on a dark one? "Closer to the bright surface, but not on it," answers Lebreton. "Just imagine! We could be landing in an ocean! It would be really exciting, the first landing in an ocean outside the Earth!" To land on an ocean would probably mean better data from Huygens. Even if the probe lasted only a few minutes before sinking, it would at least stay in an upright position. Being the right way up is essential for sending the data back to the Cassini orbiter and to the scientists on Earth. Moreover, some of Huygens’s instruments are better prepared to analyse liquids. If Huygens lands on a solid surface instead, there is a higher risk of falling in the wrong direction and not being able to easily communicate with Cassini.

Such is the fate of an ESA probe - to travel extremely far to an object you know comparatively little about to measure extremely familiar organic compounds extremely quickly. Space is a risky place and it is all about extremes.

Jean-Pierre Lebreton | alfa
Further information:
http://www.esa.int/export/esaCP/SEMW889YFDD_Life_0.html

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht PPPL physicist uncovers clues to mechanism behind magnetic reconnection
24.01.2017 | DOE/Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

nachricht Electrocatalysis can advance green transition
23.01.2017 | Technical University of Denmark

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Quantum optical sensor for the first time tested in space – with a laser system from Berlin

For the first time ever, a cloud of ultra-cold atoms has been successfully created in space on board of a sounding rocket. The MAIUS mission demonstrates that quantum optical sensors can be operated even in harsh environments like space – a prerequi-site for finding answers to the most challenging questions of fundamental physics and an important innovation driver for everyday applications.

According to Albert Einstein's Equivalence Principle, all bodies are accelerated at the same rate by the Earth's gravity, regardless of their properties. This...

Im Focus: Traffic jam in empty space

New success for Konstanz physicists in studying the quantum vacuum

An important step towards a completely new experimental access to quantum physics has been made at University of Konstanz. The team of scientists headed by...

Im Focus: How gut bacteria can make us ill

HZI researchers decipher infection mechanisms of Yersinia and immune responses of the host

Yersiniae cause severe intestinal infections. Studies using Yersinia pseudotuberculosis as a model organism aim to elucidate the infection mechanisms of these...

Im Focus: Interfacial Superconductivity: Magnetic and superconducting order revealed simultaneously

Researchers from the University of Hamburg in Germany, in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, have synthesized a new superconducting material by growing a few layers of an antiferromagnetic transition-metal chalcogenide on a bismuth-based topological insulator, both being non-superconducting materials.

While superconductivity and magnetism are generally believed to be mutually exclusive, surprisingly, in this new material, superconducting correlations...

Im Focus: Studying fundamental particles in materials

Laser-driving of semimetals allows creating novel quasiparticle states within condensed matter systems and switching between different states on ultrafast time scales

Studying properties of fundamental particles in condensed matter systems is a promising approach to quantum field theory. Quasiparticles offer the opportunity...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Sustainable Water use in Agriculture in Eastern Europe and Central Asia

19.01.2017 | Event News

12V, 48V, high-voltage – trends in E/E automotive architecture

10.01.2017 | Event News

2nd Conference on Non-Textual Information on 10 and 11 May 2017 in Hannover

09.01.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Arctic melt ponds form when meltwater clogs ice pores

24.01.2017 | Earth Sciences

Synthetic nanoparticles achieve the complexity of protein molecules

24.01.2017 | Life Sciences

PPPL physicist uncovers clues to mechanism behind magnetic reconnection

24.01.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>