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NASA Astrobiologist Melissa Trainer to Speak at the Library October 11 on Titan: An Exotic Ocean World Waiting to be Explored

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This post was authored by Stephanie Marcus, Science Reference Librarian in the Science, Technology, and Business Division.

Before the twenty years of the Cassini-Huygens mission, little was known about Saturn’s largest moon Titan, except that it was Mercury-sized and its surface was hidden beneath a thick, nitrogen-rich atmosphere. The Cassini mission mapped Titan’s surface, studied its atmospheric reactions, discovered liquid seas there, and brought us a new understanding of this remarkably Earth-like world.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft completed more than 100 targeted flybys of Titan and sent the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe to land on it in 2005—the first landing on a surface in the outer solar system. As it descended, Huygens took measurements of Titan’s atmospheric composition and pictures of its surface. The probe not only survived the descent and landing, but continued to transmit data for more than an hour on Titan’s frigid surface, until its batteries were drained.

On October 11, we will have a chance to hear from someone directly involved in studying data from the Cassini mission.  Melissa Trainer, who is the Associate Lab Chief in the Planetary Environments Laboratory at NASA Goddard, conducts laboratory research exploring the chemical processes of planetary environments. Her specialty is organic and prebiotic chemistry and she looks for the types of molecules that can form in an atmosphere without life that might be important in later forming life. Titan’s atmosphere contains methane, and when light from the sun hits methane, it reacts to form larger organic molecules which, under the right conditions, might be capable of forming prebiotic molecules.

Trainer has also been involved in creating instruments for future missions. She has thought about how to send a robotic boat to one of the cryogenic lakes on Titan to learn their composition. Scientists think these lakes are made up of a mixture of methane, ethane and other hydrocarbons, all of which may be minus 288 degrees Fahrenheit.  She developed a special piece of equipment that essentially sips the cold lake liquid.  Special materials were needed to protect against the extreme cold and to make sure that the sipper would actually work in the lake liquid. And she reports that they were able to do it.

Date:  Thursday, October 11

Time:  11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.

Place:  The Mumford Room, 6th floor Madison building

For inquiries about this program, contact Stephanie Marcus in the Science, Technology & Business Division at [email protected] or the division office at: (202) 707-1212. Individuals requiring accommodations for this event are requested to submit a request at least five business days in advance by contacting (202) 707-6362 or [email protected].

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