Titan’s Strange Chemical World Captured to Simulate Tiny Tubes

The scene of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, is both familiar and most bizarre. Like Earth, Titan has streams, lakes, clouds, and falling raindrops, as well as icebergs and a dense atmosphere. But instead of water, Titan’s chemical cycle consists of liquid methane, an organic molecule made from one carbon and four hydrogen atoms. The researchers believe that the rotating methane mixture, combined with the moon’s nitrogen -filled atmosphere, surface water ice, and perhaps some energy from a volcano or a meteor impact, could be perfect. recipe to create a kind of simple life form. That’s why Titan is a potential hot spot for life in the Solar System, along with Jupiter’s frozen moon Europe.

Many expeditions are preparing to launch into distant worlds in the coming decade: a European Mission in Europe in 2022, Europe Clipper at NASA in 2024, and the innovative NASA Dragon copter until Titan in 2027.

But before leaving this spacecraft, scientists want to be able to figure out how the planet’s chemistry will work in these moons. Now a researcher is recreating the nature of Titan in a small glass cylinder and a mixture of organic chemicals that are in the same conditions of temperature and pressure as seen in that month. The Earth’s liquid organic molecules -such as methane and benzene -become solid ice mineral crystals on Titan because they are very cold, sometimes as low as -290 Fahrenheit, according to Tomče Runčevski, an assistant professor of chemistry at Southern Methodist University, and the lead investigator of the experiment appeared this week at a meeting of the American Chemical Society.

In a series of experiments, Runčevski took small glass tubes, sucked air out of them with a pump, and added ice water. Then, one by one, he added nitrogen, methane, chemical ethane to it, and other organic compounds. Each time, he would vary the composition of the chemical mixture inside the glass cylinders to see what would happen. Next he set the pressure – equivalent to about 1.45 times the Earth’s atmosphere – and lowered the temperature around the bowls with cold air.

“We introduced a series of chemicals in a way that would introduce them to Titan,” Runčevski said. “We’ll put it first [the glass tube] in a vacuum to get all the oxygen, then we put methane to mimic Titan’s atmosphere. And then we put in other organic molecules and we studied them. ”

Under the pressure and temperature of the moon’s atmosphere, he found that two organic molecules that are abundant in Titan and poisonous to humans on Earth – acetonitrile and propionitrile – turned into a crystalline form. On Titan, these two molecules are formed by a combination of nitrogen and methane, adding energy from the sun, Saturn’s magnetic field, and cosmic rays. Acetonitrile and propionitrile begin as a gas in the air, then flow into aerosols, and then rain on the surface of the moon and become chunks of solid minerals in many forms.

I understand when you get to the extreme chemistry. But if you care about biology, or more precisely exobiology, the science of life on etc. planets, after which the shape and form of the chemical compounds are critical. This is the first time these two chemicals have been combined into a crystalline form on Earth under the conditions present on Titan.

Another important finding is that on the outside of the crystal there is little electric current, or polarity, on it. That charge can attract other molecules like water – which is necessary to form the carbon -based life blocks.

This new experiment has not confirmed the existence of life on Titan, but it does mean that researchers will discover new things about its strange, cool environment even before the NASA Dragonfly spacecraft lands there. “We can’t say there is or there is no life on Titan, but we can definitely say that the conditions for life are there,” Runčevski said. “Titan is the closest thing to Earth that can save life in a way that we know it’s the same as life on Earth.”

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