NASA instruments could reveal chemistry leading to life on Titan

This mission is designed to help scientists hone in on the chemistry at work on Titan.

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The Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s giant moon Titan is scheduled to launch in 2027. It will begin a journey of discovery that could lead to a new understanding of the evolution of life in the universe. It will carry the Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer (DraMS), which will help scientists determine the chemistry at work on Titan. Dragonfly is the fourth mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program.

Titan is a great place to study prebiotic chemical processes and the potential habitability of an extraterrestrial environment because of its abundant complex carbon-rich chemistry, interior ocean, and historical presence of liquid water. DraMS will allow researchers to examine the chemical composition of the Titanian surface remotely.

Titan’s low gravity and dense atmosphere will allow the robotic rotorcraft Dragonfly to travel between various points of interest on Titan’s surface, some of which could be several miles apart. As a result, Dragonfly can relocate its entire instrumentation and gain access to samples in environments with various geologic histories.

Dr. Melissa Trainer of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, said, “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.”

The Dragonfly robotic rotorcraft will use Titan’s low gravity and dense atmosphere to fly between various points of interest on Titan’s surface, which could be several miles apart. This allows Dragonfly to relocate its entire suite of instruments and access samples in environments with varying geologic histories.

A mass spectrometer is a device that analyses a sample’s various chemical components by breaking them down into their base molecules and passing them through sensors for identification.

Mass spectrometers determine what’s in a sample by ionizing it (hitting it with energy, causing the atoms to become positively or negatively charged) and analyzing the chemical composition of the various molecules. This involves determining the relationship between the molecule’s weight and charge, which acts as a signature for the compound.

Trainer said, “DraMS is designed to look at the organic molecules that may be present on Titan, at their composition and distribution in different surface environments.”

The DraMS instrument suite was partly developed by the same Goddard team that created the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite aboard the Curiosity rover. DraMS is designed to survey samples of Titanian surface material in situ using techniques developed for the SAM suite on Mars. It is a research tool that examines organic molecules on Titan, which are used by all known life forms.

Trainer highlighted the benefits of this heritage. When it came to searching for organic chemicals on Titan, Dragonfly’s scientists did not want to “reinvent the wheel.” Hence, they focused on proven methods already used on Mars and elsewhere.

Trainer said, “This design has given us an instrument that’s very flexible, that can adapt to the different types of surface samples.”

The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, administers the project for NASA and designs. It builds the rotorcraft-lander and is in charge of designing and building DraMS and other science instruments on Dragonfly.

Goddard is one of the team’s primary collaborators, as is the French space agency (CNES, Paris, France), which provides the Gas Chromatograph Module for DraMS, which will give an extra separation after leaving the oven.

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