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 A 100-year-old physics problem has been solved at EPFL
23.06.2017 | Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

nachricht Quantum thermometer or optical refrigerator?
23.06.2017 | National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

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: Can we see monkeys from space? Emerging technologies to map biodiversity

An international team of scientists has proposed a new multi-disciplinary approach in which an array of new technologies will allow us to map biodiversity and the risks that wildlife is facing at the scale of whole landscapes. The findings are published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. This international research is led by the Kunming Institute of Zoology from China, University of East Anglia, University of Leicester and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.

Using a combination of satellite and ground data, the team proposes that it is now possible to map biodiversity with an accuracy that has not been previously...

Im Focus: Climate satellite: Tracking methane with robust laser technology

Heatwaves in the Arctic, longer periods of vegetation in Europe, severe floods in West Africa – starting in 2021, scientists want to explore the emissions of the greenhouse gas methane with the German-French satellite MERLIN. This is made possible by a new robust laser system of the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen, which achieves unprecedented measurement accuracy.

Methane is primarily the result of the decomposition of organic matter. The gas has a 25 times greater warming potential than carbon dioxide, but is not as...

Im Focus: How protons move through a fuel cell

Hydrogen is regarded as the energy source of the future: It is produced with solar power and can be used to generate heat and electricity in fuel cells. Empa researchers have now succeeded in decoding the movement of hydrogen ions in crystals – a key step towards more efficient energy conversion in the hydrogen industry of tomorrow.

As charge carriers, electrons and ions play the leading role in electrochemical energy storage devices and converters such as batteries and fuel cells. Proton...

Im Focus: A unique data centre for cosmological simulations

Scientists from the Excellence Cluster Universe at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich have establised "Cosmowebportal", a unique data centre for cosmological simulations located at the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. The complete results of a series of large hydrodynamical cosmological simulations are available, with data volumes typically exceeding several hundred terabytes. Scientists worldwide can interactively explore these complex simulations via a web interface and directly access the results.

With current telescopes, scientists can observe our Universe’s galaxies and galaxy clusters and their distribution along an invisible cosmic web. From the...

Im Focus: Scientists develop molecular thermometer for contactless measurement using infrared light

Temperature measurements possible even on the smallest scale / Molecular ruby for use in material sciences, biology, and medicine

Chemists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in cooperation with researchers of the German Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM)...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Plants are networkers

19.06.2017 | Event News

Digital Survival Training for Executives

13.06.2017 | Event News

Global Learning Council Summit 2017

13.06.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Quantum thermometer or optical refrigerator?

23.06.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

A 100-year-old physics problem has been solved at EPFL

23.06.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Equipping form with function

23.06.2017 | Information Technology

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>