Search Titan for the chemistry that leads to life

Search Titan for the chemistry that leads to life

If there are no delays, a space probe will leave Earth in 2027 whose mission will be to explore Titan, a giant moon orbiting Saturn. When the spacecraft reaches its destination in the mid-2030s, it will embark on a mission of exploration that could provide insightful new insights into the emergence of life in the universe.

The protagonist of the mission will be Dragonfly, a propeller-driven drone, which will be deposited on Titan’s surface and will become the first vehicle to explore Titan’s surface beyond the landing point.

In many ways, Titan is more like a planet than a typical satellite. Dragonfly will take advantage of Titan’s dense atmosphere and low gravity to fly between points of interest on Titan’s surface, several kilometers apart. This allows Dragonfly to move its entire suite of instruments to a new site when the old one has been fully explored, and provides access to samples in places with very different geological histories.

One of the scientific instruments aboard Dragonfly will be the DraMS (DRAgonfly Mass Spectrometer). This mass spectrometer is designed to help unravel the chemistry going on on Titan. It can also provide insightful new information about the kinds of chemical steps that occurred on Earth that ultimately led to the formation of life, called prebiotic chemistry.

Mass spectrometers analyze the different chemical components of a sample by separating them into their basic molecules and passing them through sensors for identification.

Artist’s impression of Titan’s surface, with Saturn in the sky. (Illustration: NASA JPL/Caltech)

Titan’s abundant and complex carbon-rich chemistry, its underground ocean, and the past presence of liquid water on the surface make it an ideal destination for studying prebiotic chemical processes and the possible habitability of an extraterrestrial environment.

DraMS will allow scientists on Earth to remotely study the chemical composition of Titan’s surface.

At each site, Dragonfly will drill samples of less than one gram into an internal module that houses the DraMS instrument. There, they will be irradiated by a laser or vaporized in an oven to be measured by the DraMS. (Fountain: NCYT de Amazings)


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