Saturn’s moon Titan: an earth-like world in the outer Solar System

July 25, 2019

The Australian Centre for LNG Futures invites you to join us for a free public lecture to hear from renowned scientist, Dr Michael Malaska, chief scientist in the Planetary Ices Group at NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

Venue: UWA, Engineering Building, Engineering Lecture Theatre 1, Ground Floor

Date and Time: Monday, August 5th, 6:00 PM

Register here for your free ticket. Parking is available on Fairway, Crawley

Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, is the only object in the Solar System, aside from Earth, with stable standing bodies of liquid on its surface. Widespread lakes composed primarily of methane and ethane have been discovered in the polar areas of Titan by the Cassini mission in 2006. The Cassini spacecraft detected a number of organic materials at or near their saturation levels, including benzene. As methane remains marginally volatile at Titan surface conditions loss of this solvent in the lakes via evaporation or other processes could induce formation of organic precipitates, analogous to evaporating minerals on Earth. Such materials may play an important role in the surface chemistry of Titan.

Data from the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft has revealed Saturn’s moon Titan to have a landscape of organic molecules that are eroded by a weather cycle of methane rain, cryogenic hydrocarbon rivers and lakes. Researchers are currently working to develop new models of terrestrial and planetary dissolution geology formation. Those studies require precise measurements of equilibrium solubilities to determine landscape evolution on Titan. It’s been identified that cryogenic hydrocarbon solubility is the critical factor for the potential of non-aqueous surface life on Titan.

The novel measurement technique developed by Prof. Eric May and Dr. Arman Siavashi of UWA allows a high precision measurement on a wide variety of organic compounds, not just the ones that have chromophores or can be easily detected in solution. UWA and JPL will collaborate on cryogenic solubility measurements providing key inputs for understanding Titan geology and chemistry. Such measurement values will also provide instrument performance requirements for NASA’s recently announced Dragonfly mission to Titan.

Michael Malaska Biography

Dr. Michael Malaska is a scientist in the Planetary Ices Group at NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). He obtained his undergraduate degree in chemistry from MIT, his PhD in chemistry from UC Berkeley, and performed postdoctoral research in neurochemistry at Mayo Clinic Jacksonville in Florida. After a 20 year career in the pharmaceutical industry inventing new medicines, images of Titan’s alien surface sent down by the Cassini spacecraft ignited his passion in planetary science. He went from being an interested amateur, to a volunteer researcher, and ultimately changed his career to planetary science and astrobiology. His current research program combines laboratory simulation, spacecraft remote sensing, and field research to explore and understand Saturn’s moon Titan and the potential for life in the Ocean Worlds of our Solar System. He has done field work in North Carolina, the Mojave Desert, the Greenland Ice Sheet, and an extremophile sulfide cave in southern Mexico.

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