A University of Arkansas scientist has received funding from NASA to simulate conditions found on Saturn’s moon Titan to help better understand the origins of the liquids found on its surface and in its atmosphere.
Vincent Chevrier, assistant research professor in the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences, conducted preliminary studies in a planetary environmental simulation chamber to show that it could be done. NASA awarded Chevrier $516,047 over five years, and the university will match half of that for a total of about $750,000.
Titan is the only satellite in the solar system that has a substantial atmosphere. The atmosphere is about 95 percent nitrogen, with small amounts of methane, hydrogen and hydrocarbons. The temperature of Titan’s surface is 290 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, so no liquid water exists on the moon’s surface.
However, the space mission Cassini Huygens showed that liquid methane lakes, clouds and snow-topped mountains suggest a complex “hydrologic” cycle on Titan that involves organic molecules. Chevrier’s research will help determine the short- and long-term stability of light organic volatile compounds such as methane and ethane on the surface and subsurface of Titan. Knowing this could also help explain how the planet evolved.
“Our results will put strong constraints on the stability and behavior of liquid volatiles, and thus on the formation of pools and lakes on Titan, and help identify their source,” Chevrier said.
“This will improve understanding of the formation of complex organic molecules in the atmosphere.”
The researchers will use a dedicated simulation chamber to conduct experiments on the evaporation and sublimation rates of methane, ethane and mixtures of the two under conditions as close to those of Titan’s surface as possible.
Space Center scientists will be able to apply models that they have developed in the laboratory in the past several years to study sublimation and evaporation conditions found on Mars to Titan, and also to other planetary bodies.