NASA instrument bound for Titan could reveal the chemistry that drives life

This image shows NASA’s Dragonfly rotor lander approaching a site on Saturn’s exotic moon Titan. Taking advantage of Titan’s dense atmosphere and low gravity, Dragonfly will explore dozens of locations across the icy world, sampling and measuring the compositions of Titan’s organic surface materials to characterize the habitability of Titan’s environment and investigate the progress of prebiotics chemistry. Credit: NASA/JHU-APL

A new NASA mission to Saturn’s giant moon Titan is set to launch in 2027. When it arrives in the mid-2030s, it will embark on a voyage of discovery that could bring a new understanding of the development of life in the universe. That mission, called Dragonfly, will carry an instrument called the Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer (DraMS), designed to help scientists hone the chemistry they work on Titan. It may also shed light on the kinds of chemical steps that occurred on Earth that eventually led to the formation of life, called prebiotic chemistry.

Titan’s abundant complex carbon-rich chemistry, internal ocean, and past presence of liquid water on Titan’s surface make it an ideal destination for studying prebiotic chemical processes and the potential habitability of an alien environment.

DraMS will allow scientists back on Earth to remotely study the chemical composition of Titan’s surface. “We want to know if the type of chemistry that could be important for early pre-biochemical systems on Earth is taking place on Titan,” explains Dr. Melissa Trainor of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland.

Trainer is a planetary scientist and astrobiologist specializing in Titan and is one of the deputy principal investigators of the Dragonfly mission. He is also the lead on the DraMS instrument, which will scan through measurements of samples of Titan’s surface material for signs of prebiotic chemistry.

To accomplish this, the Dragonfly robotic rotor will take advantage of Titan’s low gravity and dense atmosphere to fly between different points of interest on Titan’s surface, several miles apart. This allows Dragonfly to move its entire array of instruments to a new site when the previous one has been fully explored and provides access to samples in environments with varied geological histories.

At each location, samples of less than one gram size will be drilled from the surface by the Drill for Acquisition of Complex Organics (DrACO) and transported inside the main body of the vessel, to a place called the “loft” that houses the DraMS instrument. There, they will be irradiated by a built-in laser or vaporized in an oven to be measured by DraMS. A mass spectrometer is an instrument that analyzes the various chemical components of a sample by separating those components into their basic molecules and passing them through sensors for identification.

NASA instrument bound for Titan could reveal the chemistry that drives life

The colorful orb of Saturn’s largest moon Titan passes in front of the planet and its rings in this true-color snapshot from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

“DraMS is designed to look at organic molecules that may be present on Titan, their composition and distribution in different surface environments,” says Trainer. Organic molecules contain carbon and are used by all known life forms. They are of interest in understanding the formation of life because it can be created by living and non-living processes.

Mass spectrometers determine what’s in a sample by ionizing the material (that is, bombarding it with energy so that the atoms become positively or negatively charged) and examining the chemical makeup of the various compounds. This involves determining the relationship between the molecule’s weight and its charge, which serves as a signature for the compound.

DraMS was developed in part by the same team at Goddard that developed the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite on the Curiosity rover. DraMS is designed to investigate samples of Titan surface material on the spotusing techniques tested on Mars with the SAM suite.

The instructor emphasized the benefits of this heritage. Dragonfly scientists didn’t want to “reinvent the wheel” when it came to looking for organic compounds on Titan, and instead relied on established methods that have been applied to Mars and elsewhere. “This design has given us an instrument that is very flexible, that can be adapted to different types of surface samples,” says Trainer.

DraMS and other science instruments on Dragonfly are designed and built under the direction of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, which manages the mission for NASA and designs and builds the rotorcraft-lander. The team includes key partners at Goddard, the French space agency (CNES, Paris, France), which provides the Gas Chromatograph Unit for DraMS that will provide an additional separation after exiting the furnace, Lockheed Martin Space, Littleton, Colorado, NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Federal Airport in Silicon Valley, California NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California Penn State University, State College, Pennsylvania Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, California , Honeybee Robotics , Brooklyn, New York, the German Aerospace Center (DLR), Cologne, Germany and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Tokyo, Japan.

Provided by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Reference: NASA instrument bound for Titan could reveal chemistry that leads to life (2023, March 17) retrieved March 17, 2023 from -titan-reveal.html

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