Scientists to Scan Titan's Atmosphere From Earth

Scientists to Scan Titan's Atmosphere From Earth
The haze of Titan's atmosphere stands out in this image taken by the Cassini spacecraft currently orbiting Saturn. (Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Intstitute.)

HONOLULU (AP) - Scientistsstudying the atmosphere of Saturn'smoon, Titan,hope their research will reveal clues about the nature of Earth's atmospherebillions of years ago.

Ralf Kaiser, a Universityof Hawaii physical chemist and associate professor, is leading the team ofinternational scientists recently awarded a five-year, $2.5 million grant forthe project from the National Science Foundation's Collaborative Research in ChemistryProgram.

Titan's atmosphere is consideredideal for gaining a better understanding of the early days of Earth's atmosphere because it andproto-Earth are believed to have emerged with similar atmospheres from thesolar nebula - the cloud of dust and gas from which it is believed our solarsystem originated.

Hydrocarbon molecules inTitan's atmospheric layers also absorb destructive ultraviolet radiation fromthe sun, preserving other molecules that are important for understanding theorigin and evolution of the planets.

"Understanding theformation and growth mechanisms of these molecules and applying these findingsto better comprehend the hydrocarbon chemistry of Titan's atmosphere is a keyobjective of our project,'' Kaiser said.

Researchers will beobserving Titan using the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility on the summit ofMauna Kea on the Big Island.

Other schools participatingin the project include Wayne State University, Florida InternationalUniversity, Emory University, California Institute of Technology and France'sUniversity of Rennes.

As part of the project, theteam will also develop teaching materials and organize annual scientificworkshops as well as attempt to broaden the participation of minorities inresearch at the participating schools, and encourage more graduate andundergraduate students in general to do hands-on research in fields such asastrochemistry.

The team's first workshopis scheduled for February 2007.

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