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Titan's Aromatic Flavors Recreated by NASA Scientists

First Posted: Jun 16, 2014 07:24 AM EDT

NASA scientists have successfully recreated the aromatic flavors surrounding Saturn's largest moon, Titan.

In order to get a deeper insight into the atmospheric composition of other worlds, scientists at NASA have created a new recipe that reproduces the key flavors of the brownish-orange atmosphere existing in Titan. This recipe is useful in experiment mimicking the chemistry of Titan.  With this experiment the team was able to successfully classify the unidentified pungent material that was initially discovered by Cassini spacecraft.

"Now we can say that this material has a strong aromatic character, which helps us understand more about the complex mixture of molecules that makes up Titan's haze," said Melissa Trainer, a planetary scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The material was detected by the Cassini Composite Infrared Spectrometer and it was seen that it consisted of a mix of molecules. To investigate this mixture the scientists combined various gases in the chamber and allowed them to react. 

"The process is like being given a slice of cake and trying to figure out the recipe by tasting it. If you can make a cake that tastes like the original slice, then you chose the right ingredients," said NASA in a release.

The combination of the gases resulted in the atmospheric spectral readings made by Cassini. The orange color of Titan comes from the mix of hydrocarbons and nitrogen that carry chemicals called nitriles. 

They initially started the experiment with just two gases nitrogen and methane, but this failed to the match the material observed by Cassini. They then added the third gas benzene. This helped in identifying the atmosphere of Titan, followed by closely related chemicals that are likely to exist there. The result was best when they chose an aromatic that had nitrogen.

"This is the closest anyone has come, to our knowledge, to recreating with lab experiments this particular feature seen in the Cassini data," said Joshua Sebree, the lead author of the study. The study is  available online in Icarus. Sebree is a former postdoctoral fellow at Goddard, who is now an assistant professor at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.

Experiments conducted in future will focus on tweaking the conditions to perfect it.

"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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