Nasa smelloscope identifies molecule in Titan’s atmosphere (Wired UK)


Like this, but not actually like this at all.

Futurama/20th Century Fox


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Nasa has discovered one of the aromatic molecules that make up
the atmosphere of Saturn’s Earth-sized moon Titan — by sniffing at
it. The elusive materials, now known to be Polycyclic Aromatic
Nitrogen Heterocycles (PANH), were originally detected by the
Cassini probe’s Composite Infrared Spectrometer (CIRS). We would
have called it a smelloscope.

The spectrometer uses light at wavelengths beyond the red
spectrum of visible light to analyse molecules, revealing their
spectral signature. This signature, though, only gives
space-chemists an idea of the molecular weight of the material they
are looking at, rather than a complete formula, so to find out
exactly what makes Titan’s atmosphere a reddish-orange, scientists
back on Earth had to put on their aprons.


In lab experiments NASA scientists matched the spectral signature of an unknown material the Cassini spacecraft detected in Titan’s atmosphere at far-infrared wavelengths. The material contains aromatic hydrocarbons that include nitrogen, a subgroup called polycyclic aromatic nitrogen heterocycles.

NASA/Goddard/JPL


Essentially, due to the colour of the gases, planetary
scientists at Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, USA
knew there had to be a mix of nitriles (containing nitrogen) and
hydrocarbons (sometimes volatile chemicals made of carbon and
hydrogen). Sadly, there are hundreds of thousands of members to the
hydrocarbon family of chemicals, but after discovering a third
molecule in the atmosphere, the team started to make progress.
Benzene, an aromatic molecule — so-called for their range of sweet
smells — was discovered in Titan’s atmosphere by Cassini,
providing the final ingredient for the team to experiment with.

Discovering the mystery molecule with only the partial
components is a bit like being given a slice of cake and trying to
replicate the recipe by tasting it. If you can make a cake that
tastes exactly the same then you’ve found the right ingredients. In
the Goddard Space Flight kitchen, however, the act of tasting is
replaced with the spectrometer, and the mixing bowl with a
pressurised gas chamber. Recreating the surface conditions of Titan
and throwing in a cocktail of various benzene-like cyclic aromatic
compounds containing a nitrogen group eventually yielded PANH,
which matches the readings taken from the Cassini-Huygens
spacecraft.

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“Titan’s chemical makeup is veritable zoo of complex molecules,”
said Scott Edgington, Cassini Deputy Project Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion
Laboratory
 in Pasadena, California. “With the combination
of laboratory experiments and Cassini data, we gain an
understanding of just how complex and wondrous this Earth-like moon
really is.”

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16 June 2014 | 2:28 pm – Source: wired.co.uk
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