Home Science Space Recipe is Different, but Saturn's Moon Titan Has Ingredients for Life

Recipe is Different, but Saturn’s Moon Titan Has Ingredients for Life

Catherine Neish is counting the days until her space launch. While the Western planetary geologist isn’t space-suiting up for her own interstellar voyage, she is playing a key role in an international mission — dispatching a robotic drone to Saturn’s moon Titan — set to blast-off in 2027.

For nearly two decades, the global space sector has focused a majority of its funds 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.

A giant of a moon appears before a giant of a planet undergoing seasonal changes in this natural color view of Titan and Saturn from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. (Image: NASA / JPL / Caltech / Space Science Institute)

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 investigate Titan. They found when impact craters are formed on Saturn’s largest moon, it exposes relatively fresh “water ice” from Titan’s icy crust.

The three mosaics shown here were composed with data from Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer taken during the last three Titan flybys, on Oct. 28, 2005 (left image), Dec. 26, 2005 (middle image), and Jan. 15, 2006 (right image). These false-color images were constructed from images taken at the following wavelengths: 1.6 microns (blue), 2.01 (green), and 5 microns (red). (Image: NASA / JPL / University of Arizona)

On Titan, atmospheric processes bury the ice under a layer of sand-like organic material. In Titan’s dry equatorial regions, the sand piles up; but at higher, wetter latitudes, surface streams erode the sand away. It is difficult to assess what lies beneath Titan’s hazy atmosphere — unless of course, you have a multi-million dollar Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer like ESA’s, which collected both light visible to humans and infrared light of slightly longer wavelengths during NASA’s Cassini mission. Neish said:

“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. Titan has weather. It’s not unlike the Earth in that way. It’s just that the ingredients are all wrong. It has methane rain and streams cutting through the surface and organic sand getting blown around. It’s still very active, just like it is here on Earth.”

These findings could prove beneficial in discovering ancient ecosystems frozen in the bottoms of impact craters and will also prove invaluable when preparing data analysis and monitoring techniques for the forthcoming Dragonfly drone mission to Titan.

This image was returned January 14, 2005 by the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe during its successful descent to land on Titan. This is the colored view, following processing to add reflection spectra data, and gives a better indication of the actual color of the surface. (Image: NASA / JPL / ESA / University of Arizona)

As interest in Titan and other planetary bodies grows, Neish feels the global space sector is ready to start looking beyond Mars for the existence of life — even if the Red Planet remains the prime destination for NASA, the Canadian Space Agency and blockbuster movie producers in Hollywood. Neish said:

“I think more and more, we’re seeing a false equivalency between life and Mars. The recent findings about Venus and all the new things we’re learning about it once being an ocean world is another game-changer. Finally, people are saying, ‘In our search for life in the universe, we really need to focus on a lot more places, and not just Mars.’ And that includes NASA sending the Dragonfly mission to Titan.”

Provided by: University of Western Ontario [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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Troy Oakes
Troy was born and raised in Australia and has always wanted to know why and how things work, which led him to his love for science. He is a professional photographer and enjoys taking pictures of Australia's beautiful landscapes. He is also a professional storm chaser where he currently lives in Hervey Bay, Australia.

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