School: St. Patrick’s Community School
City: Red Deer (Province: Alberta)
Imagine jumping off from a mountain that is several hundreds of yards high and only using your coat to glide down. It sounds like something straight out of a chapter from a Mary Poppins book here on Earth but on Saturn’s moon, Titan it’s a completely different story. Thanks to the Cassini mission where the Huygens probe detached from Cassini and parachuted right through Titans atmosphere, measuring Titan’s atmospheric conditions and taking pictures along the way. We found out that the heavily scrutinized moon held a few strikingly similar conditions to Earth.
It is the only moon located in the solar systems that contain a thick atmosphere and it is also the only celestial body (other than Earth) to possess stable supplies of liquid on its surface. Except that the lakes on Titan aren’t filled with water but alternatively, liquid methane and ethane and in fact, your lungs would freeze just trying to breathe in the nitrogen atmosphere. Yet, instead of driving us away, it only sparks our interest more, especially with the leading questions: Why does Titan have an atmosphere and how come it’s so unusual? Do the presence of water and an atmosphere on Titan mean that it can support habitable life?
It’s incredibly fascinating how Titan holds an atmospheric pressure 1.5 times greater than Earth yet the other Galilean moons of Jupiter have absolute no atmosphere. We know by now that the presence of trace amounts of argon, krypton, xenon and neon in our atmosphere came from a comet that soon landed on our planet. I was thinking that if Titan’s atmosphere held any of these noble gases, that would mean that its atmosphere came from a possible comet but yet the probe results so far show that the only noble gas we’ve seen on Titan would be argon-40, which is not a gas that barges in with comets but instead a result of decaying potassium inside the interior of Titan and soon outgases. Contrary to our primordial atmosphere, Titans atmosphere seems to have come from outgassing from the interior and one might wonder how Titans methane lakes come to have formed.
A liquid is usually deemed as a basic benchmark for life and Titan holds pools of methane on its surface that are unlike anything we’ve seen before! A methane-based life form wouldn’t need to deal with the risk of its biomolecules getting destroyed by hydrolysis since all the bodies of liquid on Titan are filled with hydrocarbons instead of water. Hypothetically, some scientific models propose that Titans conditions could allow non-water-based life to thrive.
It’d be interesting to bring a rotorcraft probe and a visible/infrared imager/spectrometer on the
next mission to Titan, the probe could study the chemical composition on Titans surface and sample the lower atmosphere for any signs of possible biomarkers. So far there is no evidence of life on Titan but, its uncommon conditions and complex compositions deem it perfect as a potential candidate for further space exploration.