University of Idaho to play pivotal role in Dragonfly’s life on Titan experiment

Sharon Fisher//August 5, 2019

University of Idaho to play pivotal role in Dragonfly’s life on Titan experiment

Sharon Fisher//August 5, 2019

image of dragonfly life on titan experiment
Dragonfly is designed to scoop material from Titan’s surface to test whether it has developed the building blocks of life. Image courtesy of Johns Hopkins

MOSCOW — Is there life on Titan? The University of Idaho hopes to find out.

The mission isn’t scheduled to depart Earth until 2026, but Jason Barnes, associate professor of physics in the University of Idaho’s College of Science, is working on an experiment to help detect whether amino acids, the building blocks of life – at least here – are also present on Titan, the largest of Saturn’s 62 moons.

photo of jason barnes
Jason Barnes

“It’s one of the more interesting places we know of in the solar system,” Barnes said.

Most planets have a solid surface but no atmosphere or an atmosphere but no solid surface. Only three places in the solar system have both:  Venus, Mars and Titan.

“The atmosphere is particularly interesting,” Barnes said. It’s much like Earth’s, with a similar pressure and composition of mostly nitrogen. Plus, Titan has enough gravity to retain its atmosphere.

Barnes’ experiment will land on Titan, measure organic compounds and see how far they’ve progressed on the path toward life, he said.

NASA is running the mission, and the civil space division of Johns Hopkins, in Maryland, will be building the satellite, said Barnes, who has been named deputy principal investigator for the experiment.

Barnes is helping design the quad-copter machine — nicknamed Dragonfly after the Earth insect it resembles — to collect the samples. While it may nominally seem like a drone, it’s a lot more complex than one you can pick up at Walmart.

“We’re designing something that’s never been done before,” he said. “It has to work the first time, because you can’t send someone up with a wrench to fix it.”

Part of that involves extensive testing on Earth.

“We can’t simulate the gravity or atmosphere, but we can operate in the same conditions,” Barnes said. “We want to make sure we have all our ducks in a row before we launch.”

By about 10 minutes after landing, which isn’t scheduled until 2034, Dragonfly will start sending data back to Earth — slowly. In total, over the project’s 2 ½-year mission, it will transmit about one DVD’s worth of data.

“It’s slightly faster than an ancient modem, but not by much,” Barnes said.

Barnes isn’t the only Idaho connection to the Titan project. Idaho National Laboratory is also helping develop Dragonfly’s nuclear fuel, which should keep the device flying long after the official end of the project.

“The half-life is 95 years, and there’s no reason we couldn’t keep going for that many years,” he said.

The effort will help scientists under Titan, a cold distant moon, much better.

Located 10 times further from the sun than the Earth, Titan gets only 1% of the sunlight. Consequently, the temperature on Titan hovers around 90 Kelvin or almost 300 degrees below zero Farenheit.

That also means methane – chemically known as CH4, the same substance used in our gas stoves but liquid at Titan’s temperatures – plays a similar role in Titan’s atmosphere that water plays on Earth.

“It can form clouds and rain out onto the surface,” Barnes said. “Liquid methane rain carves channels and gullies into giant lakes and seas of liquid methane.”

Other than the Earth, it’s the only body we know of that has lakes on the surface, he said. But when sunlight hits methane, it breaks up into chemical variants, which can then agglomerate into other organic molecules.

Organic molecules may become self-replicating, or may have developed amino acids — a key ingredient in protein.

“Our primary goal is to see how far organic chemistry has progressed on Titan,” Barnes said.