Cassini spacecraft finds propylene traces saturn’s smoggy moon Titan

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft finds propylene on Saturn’s moon, Titan

5:06 AM, 7th October 2013
propylene traces found on saturn’s smoggy moon Titan
Propylene, the key ingredient in household plastic containers, has been discovered in the atmosphere of Saturn’s smoggy moon, Titan.

PASADENA, US: The key ingredient in household plastic containers, propylene, has been discovered in the atmosphere of Saturn’s smoggy moon Titan — marking more firsts for planetary science. It’s the first time this particular hydrocarbon has been detected on a world beyond Earth, and it’s the first new molecule to be identified by the Cassini orbiter’s Composite Infrared Spectrometer. Similar hydrocarbons were found by NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1980, leading scientists to wonder why they weren't seeing the propylene.

“It’s taken us 32 years, with a new spacecraft and a new instrument, to find it. It’s kind of a missing link,” said Conor Nixon, Goddard Space Flight Centre, NASA. The propylene in Titan’s atmosphere amounts to just a few parts per billion, and it would take a factory to chain together the molecules and mould it into polypropylene plastic.


 

Planetary scientist Conor Nixon explains the propylene discovery.

The find’s scientific significance has more to do with how chemistry works on Titan, which many scientists regard as an analog to an age on ancient Earth before oxygen became a significant ingredient of the atmosphere.

“Titan as a whole has a very interesting chemical environment. Because there’s no free oxygen on Titan, it means this organic chemistry can just keep running and running and running like a huge natural experiment, and it can keep building more and more complex chemicals,” said Nixon.

Voyager had detected two chemicals in Titan’s atmosphere that are closely related to propylene, propane and propyne, but its instruments weren’t sensitive enough to find the propylene.

In addition to propane, Titan’s atmosphere and lakes contain variants of methane and ethane (including the ethylene that’s an ingredient in polyethylene milk jugs). If all those hydrocarbons interact just right with the water ice that’s thought to lie on Titan’s surface, they can be transformed into the chemical building blocks of life, including amino acids.

“It is possible to produce amino acids. Those are the types of things we’ll be looking for in the future. We’re going up stepwise in complexity to determine how the chemical processes work on Titan,” said Nixon.

On Earth, propylene compounds are typically extracted from petroleum and processed into plastic containers as well as car bumpers and other consumer products. On Titan, the propylene and other hydrocarbons are produced when sunlight breaks apart the methane in the Saturnian moon’s atmosphere. That gives the atoms a chance to reassemble into molecules of varying complexity.

Cassini’s mass spectrometer turned up early hints that propylene was among the molecules produced, but it took the measurements from the Composite Infrared Spectrometer, or CIRS, to confirm the find.

“This measurement was very difficult to make, because propylene’s weak signature is crowded by related chemicals with much stronger signals. This success boosts our confidence that we will find still more chemicals long hidden in Titan’s atmosphere,” said Michael Flasar, Goddard Scientist and Principal Investigator for Cassini Composite Infrared Spectrometer.

© NBC News

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