Tiny 'Titans in a Jar' Could Help Scientists Unravel Habitability

These are three mosaics based on data from Cassini's visual- and infrared-mapping spectrometer. They reflect observations taken during Titan flybys on Oct. 28, 2005 (left image), Dec. 26, 2005 (middle image) and Jan. 15, 2006 (right image).
These are three mosaics based on data from Cassini's visual- and infrared-mapping spectrometer. They reflect observations taken during Titan flybys on Oct. 28, 2005 (left image), Dec. 26, 2005 (middle image) and Jan. 15, 2006 (right image).
(Image: © NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

To help determine whether Saturn's moon Titan could host life, researchers are modeling many possible realities of this icy world within tiny glass jars.

On June 27, NASA announced it would launch the Dragonfly mission to Titan in 2026. Once the mission arrives in the year 2034, the rotorcraft will fly over Titan's surface, visiting two dozen locations to investigate atmospheric and surface conditions that may be friendly to life. 

Titan is intriguing because it may be very similar to ancient Earth before our home hosted life, and Titan is the only moon in the solar system with a dense atmosphere like the blue planet. Previous missions have also revealed that Titan has liquid on its surface

Related: Farewell, Titan! Cassini's Last View of Saturn Moon Shows Fabulous Methane Lakes

Before the mission launches, however, researchers at Southern Methodist University will tackle the question in the lab using a $195,000 grant from the Houston-based Welsh Foundation. To explore Titan's organic-molecule possibilities, the team is recreating the moon's conditions in multiple glass cylinders, or "Titans in a jar," according to a university statement.

"Titan is a hostile place, with lakes and seas of liquid methane, and rains and storms of methane," Tom Runčevski, lead researcher on the project and a chemist at the university, said in a statement. "The storms carry organic molecules produced in the atmosphere to the surface, and at the surface conditions, only methane, ethane and propane are liquids. All other organic molecules are in their solid form — or, as we would call them on Earth, minerals."

The European Space Agency obtained this image on Jan. 14, 2005, from the Huygens probe during its successful descent to land on Titan; it was the first color view of Titan's surface.

(Image credit: NASA/JPL/ESA/University of Arizona)

The team intends to mimic the process in tiny jars. "We can recreate this world step by step in a cylinder made of glass," he said. "First, we will introduce water, which freezes into ice. Second, we will top that layer of ice with ethane that liquidizes as a 'lake.' Then we will fill the remaining cylinder with nitrogen."

By then introducing different molecules to the systems, the team can mimic rainfall and drought to produce different versions of the Titanian surface. 

The researchers will use data collected during the Cassini-Huygens mission to replicate Titan's conditions, and perhaps get a good grasp of what this distant solar system world is like before Dragonfly takes off to see for itself.

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