An assistant professor of planetary sciences at Johns Hopkins would hop aboard a space shuttle and travel to Saturn’s largest moon ‘Titan’, if it was possible. Her best alternative was to bring Titan’s dust and gases to her lab at Johns Hopkins University.
Sarah Horst and her team of graduate student researchers developed “an atmosphere in a bottle” in her lab, utilizing a metal canister, tubes and an electrical charge. Gases – similar to those potentially found on a distant body – are pumped into the cylindrical metal chamber through tubes, then heated or cooled with liquid nitrogen to the appropriate temperature and zapped with an electric charge that mimics a blast of charged particles from a star, such as the sun.
The results, too complicated to predict, can be some oxygen and water, an entirely new combination of gases or a production of small, solid particles suspended in a mist.
The researchers have learned so much from the experiments. For example, they provided them with a better understanding of what’s happening on Pluto and Titan. Later on they could provide lessons about worlds that could host life and have not yet been discovered.
“We’re interested in how atmospheric chemistry affects the habitability of a planet,” Horst said.
Horst’s lab could prove to be a valuable resource for astronomers, allowing them to reverse-engineer their discoveries based on the experimental demonstrations carried out in her lab.
Horst describes herself as a “Titan evangelist”, since her research is primarily focused on Titan.
Her paper about the moon of Saturn was published in the Journal of Geophysics Research. To better describe Titan’s nitrogen-based atmosphere, she combined data from spacecraft models and measurements, remote sensing and her lab experiments.
Titan houses an “atmospheric chemistry that far surpasses any other solar system atmosphere and [is] the only other solar system body with stable liquid currently on its surface,” she wrote.
Astronomers have been sporadically finding exoplanets or planets outside the solar system. Once the James Webb Space Telescope is launched and begins exploring, astronomers are expecting to find even more exoplanets, but for now discoveries are limited. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore will manage and operate the telescope.