New clues to cut through the mystery of Titan’s atmospheric haze

A team including Berkeley Lab scientists homes in on a ‘missing link’ in Titan’s one-of-a-kind chemistry.

Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, is unique among all moons in our solar system for its dense and nitrogen-rich atmosphere that also contains hydrocarbons and other compounds, and the story behind the formation of this rich chemical mix has been the source of some scientific debate.
Now, a research collaboration involving scientists in the Chemical Sciences Division at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) has zeroed in on a low-temperature chemical mechanism that may have driven the formation of multiple-ringed molecules – the precursors to more complex chemistry now found in the moon’s brown-orange haze layer.
The study, co-led by Ralf Kaiser at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and published in the Oct. 8 edition of the journal Nature Astronomy, runs counter to theories that high-temperature reaction mechanisms are required to produce the chemical makeup that satellite missions have observed in Titan’s atmosphere.

>Read more on the Advanced Light Source/Berkeley Lab website

Image: The atmospheric haze of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon (pictured here along Saturn’s midsection), is captured in this natural-color image (box at left). A study that involved experiments at Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source has provided new clues about the chemical steps that may have produced this haze.
Credits: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Space Science Institute, Caltech

Diamond shines its light on moon rocks

Nearly 50 years after our first steps on the Moon, rock samples from the Apollo missions still have a lot to tell us about lunar formation, and Earth’s volcanoes.

An international collaboration involving scientists in Tenerife, the US and the UK, are using Diamond, the UK’s national synchrotron light source, to investigate Moon rocks recovered during the Apollo Missions in a brand new way.
Dr. Matt Pankhurst of Instituto Volcanológico de Canarias and NASA lunar principle investigator explains: “We have used a new imaging technique developed at Diamond to carry out 3D mapping of olivine – a common green mineral found in the Earth’s sub-surface and in these Moon rock samples. These maps will be used to improve understanding of the Moon’s ancient volcanic systems and help to understand active geological processes here on Earth.
With this new technique, our team may be able to recover from these Moon rock samples information such as what the patterns of magma flow within the volcanic system were, what the magma storage duration was like, and potentially even identify eruption triggers. The data will be analysed using state-of-the-art diffusion modelling which will establish the history of individual crystals.”

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Image:
Dr Matt Pankhurst studies one of the moon rock samples from the Apollo 12 & 15 missions at Diamond Light Source

From Moon Rocks to Space Dust

Specialized equipment, techniques, and expertise at Berkeley Lab attract samples from far, far away.

From moon rocks to meteorites, and from space dust to a dinosaur-destroying impact, the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) has a well-storied expertise in exploring samples of extraterrestrial origin.

This research – which has helped us to understand the makeup and origins of objects within and beyond our solar system – stems from the Lab’s long-standing core capabilities and credentials in structural and chemical analyses and measurement at the microscale and nanoscale.

Berkeley Lab’s participation in a new study, detailed June 11 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, focused on the chemical composition of tiny glassy grains of interplanetary particles – likely deposited in Earth’s upper atmosphere by comets – that contain dust leftover from the formative period of our solar system.

That study involved experiments at the Lab’s Molecular Foundry, a nanoscale research facility, and the Advanced Light Source (ALS), which supplies different types of light, from infrared light to X-rays, for dozens of simultaneous experiments.

> Read more on the Advanced Light Source website

Image: Moon dust and rock samples photographed at Berkeley Lab.
Credit: Berkeley Lab

Extraterrestrial Oceans

Exploring the solar system does not need spacecraft

One of the amazing things scientists can do at Diamond is to recreate conditions of other parts of the Universe. Recently they used this remarkable ability to peer into the salty waters hidden underneath kilometres of ice on Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons.
In September, NASA ended the Cassini mission in spectacular fashion, crashing the spacecraft into Saturn. For twenty years, Cassini brought us closer to our gas giant neighbour and its moons. The probe made astonishing discoveries about one of them: Enceladus. This small moon has plumes of gas erupting from its surface, it has a rocky core covered in a thick layer of ice, and in between lies a deep, salty ocean. It is one of the most promising places to look for extraterrestrial life. Enceladus is one of the few places in the Solar System where liquid water is known to exist.
Spacecraft aren’t our only way of exploring the solar system, and Stephen leads a team of experimental astrophysicists based at Diamond and Keele University (UK), who have been recreating the conditions in Enceladus’s salty ocean right here in Harwell. They have been using Diamond’s astoundingly bright light to investigate one of the more mysterious properties of water – its ability to form clathrates when water is cooled under pressure. Clathrates are ice-like structures that behave like tiny cages, and can trap molecules such as carbon dioxide and methane.

 

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Image Credit: LPG-CNRS-U. Nantes/Charles U., Prague.