With its rich atmosphere of organic molecules, for many exobiologists, Titan, the largest moon of the planet Saturn, is a dream natural laboratory. Titan's atmosphere is composed of nitrogen (N2) and methane
This artist's rendering shows a proposed ice-penetrating cryobot (background) and a submersible hydrobot (foreground)—an intriguing advance robot combination that could be used to explore the suspected ice-covered ocean on Jupiter's moon Europa. In this scenario, a lander robot would arrive on Europa's surface and deploy the cryobot/hydrobot package, remaining on the surface to function as a communications relay station. The cryobot would melt its way through the ice cover and then deploy the hydrobot into the ice-covered ocean. The hydrobot is a self-propelled underwater vehicle that could analyze the chemical composition of the subsurface ocean and search for signs of alien life. The artwork here shows the autonomous robot submarine (hydrobot) examining a hypothesized underwater thermal vent and various alien aquatic life-forms gathered around this life-sustaining phenomenon. (NASA/JPL)
(CH4) gas. Ultraviolet radiation from the Sun can break up these molecules, leading to the formation of complex organic molecules. In the past, exobiologists often suggested that the composition of Titan's atmosphere closely resembled that of an early Earth, before life began on humans' home planet. One of the most pressing questions that circulated within the scientific community concerning Titan involved the issue of how complex the organic molecules were in Titan's opaque, smoggy atmosphere. A companion issue raised by some exobiologists involved the possibility of cold-loving extremophiles arising on Titan as a result of the frigid organic molecule soup. The Cassini/Huygens spacecraft mission to
Saturn provided some answers and also raised some new, intriguing questions about this large, cloud-enshrouded moon of Saturn with a dense nitrogen-rich atmosphere.
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