NASA scientists have created a new recipe that captures key flavors of the brownish-orange atmosphere around Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. The recipe is used for lab experiments designed to simulate Titan’s chemistry. With this approach, the team was able to classify a previously unidentified material discovered by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft in the moon’s smoggy haze.
“Now we can say that this material has a strong aromatic character, which helps us understand more about the complex mixture of molecules that makes up Titan’s haze,” said Melissa Trainer, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
The material had been detected earlier in data gathered by Cassini’s Composite Infrared Spectrometer, an instrument that makes observations at wavelengths in the far infrared region, beyond red light. The spectral signature of the material suggested it was made up of a mixture of molecules.
To investigate that mixture, the researchers turned to the tried-and-true approach of combining gases in a chamber and letting them react. The idea is that if the experiment starts with the right gases and under the right conditions, the reactions in the lab should yield the same products found in Titan’s smoggy atmosphere. The process is like being given a slice of cake and trying to figure out the recipe by tasting it. If you can make a cake that tastes like the original slice, then you chose the right ingredients.