Looking for the Special Sauce of Life in Space

Feb 14, 2023

Noted Scientist Provides Update on NASA Missions

Toxic Titan: The Dragonfly Program

In 1953, an enterprising graduate student at the University of Chicago named Stanley Miller performed a science experiment. Miller wondered if life might emerge “naturally” from the right non-life ingredients. He attempted to simulate the atmosphere of early Earth with a gas mixture of hydrogen, ammonia, methane, water vapor, and carbon dioxide. Miller then introduced an external source of energy in the form of electrical sparks. The resulting chemical products included amino acids, an essential building block of all living cells.

In the roughly 70 years since Miller’s experiment, scientists have continued to study the origins of life in earth-bound laboratories. Today’s scientists also have the advantage of sophisticated astronomical instruments on earth and in space, as well as robotic probes exploring our solar system.

At first glance, Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, doesn’t appear to be a very promising place to search for the origins of life. The surface temperature is -290F and the “ground” consists of a rock-hard form of ice. Titan also has a dense and smoggy atmosphere composed primarily of nitrogen and methane. In addition, the satellite has a weather cycle with precipitation and evaporation. It snows benzene, a chemical commonly used in lighter fluids. Rain consists of large, slow-moving drops of butane and ethane. Titan’s geography includes mile-high ice mountains with sharp canyons sculpted by flash floods along with large lakes and seas filled with liquid natural gas.

In several ways, however, Titan’s environment resembles the early days of planet Earth. In the distant past, our own atmosphere was largely composed of nitrogen and methane. Titan’s atmosphere and surface also contain a large volume of organic compounds which are essential to life as we know it. Surprisingly, beneath an icy surface shell, Titan appears to have a global subsurface ocean composed of liquid water and ammonia. For these reasons, scientists have chosen Titan as a prime target for an upcoming space mission to search for the origins of life and the search for life beyond Earth.

On Wednesday, March 1st at 7:00 PM, the planetarium at Frostburg State University and the Cumberland Astronomy Club will host a virtual presentation with planetary scientist Dr. Sarah Horst of Johns Hopkins University, Applied Physics Laboratory. Dr. Horst will discuss what we know about the physical environment of Titan, the importance to understanding the emergence of life on earth, and NASA’s planned mission to Titan with a robotic quadcopter known as “Dragonfly” in a presentation entitled “Toxic Titan.” Sarah is a lead investigator on the Dragonfly mission. Her presentation is free, open to the public, and will take place at the planetarium in the Multimedia Learning Center on the university campus.

For more information contact info@cumberlandastronomyclub.org or Dr. Jason Speights, FSU Planetarium Director, jcspeights@frostburg.edu, (301) 687-4339.