Scientists found unexpected molecule in atmosphere of Saturn’s largest moon

29 Octobre, 2020, 22:44 | Auteur: Therese Cote
  • Up until now C3H2 has only been detected in molecular clouds of gas and dust such as the Taurus Molecular Cloud but has now been found in the atmosphere of Titan by scientists using ALMA. Image Conor Nixon  NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

The NASA team used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to probe Titan's murky atmosphere to better understand its complex chemical composition, and the researchers spotted a molecule known as cyclopropenylidene (C3H2). Calling this development "unexpected", scientists claim that this is the first time that they have detected this molecule in an atmosphere.

A team of researchers led by planetary scientist Conor Nixon of Goddard Space Flight Centre used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile nearly four years ago to investigate titan's atmosphere and to find out organic molecules. The molecules floating in space are too cold and far apart to facilitate chemical reactions, but on Titan, cyclopropenylidene could form molecules very much like the nucleobases of DNA. The molecule discovered in the atmosphere is cyclopropenylidene, or C3H2, and it has only ever been discovered in the cold void of space. NASA says that cyclopropenylidene can react easily with other molecules in this type of atmosphere and that's why scientists are now more interested in this moon.

Dr. Nixon, Dr. Malaska and their colleagues were able to identify small amounts of cyclopropenylidene at Titan likely because they were looking in the upper layers of the moon's atmosphere, where there are fewer other gases for cyclopropenylidene to interact with.

This is a big deal because out of over 200 moons within our solar system, and 62 that belong to Saturn alone, Titan is considered to be the most like Earth. But now, C3H2, with half the carbon atoms of benzene, appears to have taken its place.

Its atmosphere is four times as dense but like Earth, it's mostly made up of hydrogen with a hint of methane mixed in.

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"It's a very weird little molecule, so it's not going be the kind you learn about in high school chemistry or even undergraduate chemistry", said c. Malaska was not involved with this study, but he researches Titan.

When the two molecules combine under under the spotlight of the Sun's rays, they "unleash a complex web of organic chemistry that has captivated scientists and thrust", NASA said. "Every little piece and part you can discover can help you put together the huge puzzle of all the things going on there". Titan bears a similarity to our home, Earth. At the Titan surface, the atmospheric pressure is about 60 percent greater than on Earth-roughly the same pressure a person would feel swimming about 50 feet (15 meters) below the surface in the ocean on Earth. According to scientists, it is possible that the thinness of the atmosphere at that altitude contributes to the cyclopropenylidene's survival, but why only on Titan is a mystery.

Cassini made 127 close flybys of Titan between 2004 and 2017 and indeed, the ground-breaking mission did spot evidence for an electrically charged version of the same molecule, with its mass spectrometer during its close encounter with the moon.

Titan, an icy moon with methane lakes, is the target of NASA's upcoming Dragonfly mission, which will look for signs of past or present life. "So we want to know what compounds from the atmosphere get to the surface, and then, whether that material can get through the ice crust to the ocean below, because we think the ocean is where the habitable conditions are", Lopes added. It is scheduled to take off from Earth in 2026 and reach Titan by 2034. NASA's future mission, Dragonfly, will be headed for Titan.

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