NASA Has Figured Out What Titan Smells Like

Good news, everyone! A recent lab experiment by NASA scientists has revealed the precise aromatic quality of Saturn's largest moon, Titan. And like a fine wine, it has a "strong aromatic character."

Unfortunately, NASA doesn't have a Futurama-like smell-o-scope at its disposal. Instead, its scientists were able to "reverse engineer" the recipe that makes up the flavors of Titan's brownish-orange atmosphere. And in fact, the process of doing so helped the NASA team to classify a previously unidentified material discovered by NASA's Cassini spacecraft in the moon's atmosphere.

"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," noted Melissa Trainer in a NASA statement. She's a planetary scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

To recreate Titan's atmospheric conditions, the researchers combined gases in a chamber to let them react. Given the right conditions, these reactions should produce the same products found in the atmosphere of Saturn's largest moon. The process, says NASA, is like being given a slice of cake and trying to figure out the recipe by tasting it; if the new cake tastes like the original, the correct ingredients have been chosen.

NASA Has Figured Out What Titan Smells Like

Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/JPL

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The challenge is that the possibilities are almost limitless in this case. Titan's dirty orange color comes from a mixture of hydrocarbons (molecules that contain hydrogen and carbon) and nitrogen-carrying chemicals called nitriles. The family of hydrocarbons already has hundreds of thousands of members, identified from plants and fossil fuels on Earth, and more could exist.

The logical starting point was to begin with the two gases most plentiful in Titan's atmosphere: nitrogen and methane. But these experiments never produced a mixture with a spectral signature to match to the one seen by Cassini; neither have similar experiments conducted by other groups.

Promising results finally came when the researchers added a third gas, essentially tweaking the flavors in the recipe for the first time. The team began with benzene, which has been identified in Titan's atmosphere, followed by a series of closely related chemicals that are likely to be present there. All of these gases belong to the subfamily of hydrocarbons known as aromatics.

In this case, the best results occurred owing to the addition of an aromatic that contained nitrogen (it's a material that contains aromatic hydrocarbons, including nitrogen — a subgroup called polycyclic aromatic nitrogen heterocycles). Analysis of this particular recipe revealed spectral features that matched up well with the distinctive signature that had been pulled from Cassini.

[ NASA ]