Sci­en­tists sim­u­late com­plex chem­istry of Ti­tan’s at­mo­sphere

Tehran Times - - SCIENCE -

Saturn’s moon Ti­tan is a fas­ci­nat­ing ce­les­tial ob­ject, and not just be­cause it or­bits an­other planet. Ti­tan has more than twice as much sur­face area as our moon and is one of two known ob­jects with sta­ble bod­ies of liq­uid on the sur­face — the other is Earth. Al­though, on Ti­tan, it’s liq­uid hy­dro­car­bons in­stead of wa­ter. Ti­tan is also the only moon we know of with an at­mo­sphere, and a new study aims to ex­plain why it’s so full of com­plex hy­dro­car­bons.

Ti­tan’s at­mo­sphere is 1.5 times a dense as Earth’s and con­sists mainly of ni­tro­gen along with some meth­ane, hy­dro­gen, and trace amounts of com­plex mol­e­cules that could be pre­cur­sors to life as we know it. Ti­tan is also what’s known as a “su­per-ro­ta­tor,” mean­ing the at­mo­sphere ro­tates sig­nif­i­cantly faster than the planet.

The con­ven­tional wis­dom is that high tem­per­a­tures are nec­es­sary to cre­ate the com­plex mix of hy­dro­car­bons on Ti­tan, but of course, it’s very chilly on Ti­tan with an av­er­age tem­per­a­ture of -292 de­grees Fahren­heit (-180 Cel­sius). Re­searchers are par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in the pres­ence of multi-ringed hy­dro­car­bon mol­e­cules called poly­cyclic aro­matic hy­dro­car­bons (PAHs) in Ti­tan’s at­mo­sphere. The team led by Ralf Kaiser from the Univer­sity of Hawaii sug­gests that a com­bi­na­tion of two gases in Ti­tan-like con­di­tions could gen­er­ate PAHs without high tem­per­a­tures.

If ringed hy­dro­car­bons don’t re­quire high-en­ergy con­di­tions, they could be much more com­mon through­out the uni­verse than we thought. It’s dif­fi­cult to know, though, be­cause they are ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to de­tect in space. In ad­di­tion to the prac­ti­cal ex­per­i­ments, the team also ran the num­bers to show how these re­ac­tants could come to­gether to form com­plex mol­e­cules in other low-tem­per­a­ture con­di­tions. They found the re­ac­tion was very ef­fi­cient, re­quir­ing no out­side en­ergy source.

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