NASA's Cassini Spacecraft's Final Flyby Today of Saturn's Moon Titan --"Could Organic Molecules in Its Vast Lakes Form Cell-Like Structures?" (Today's 'Galaxy' Stream)
NASA's Cassini spacecraft is headed toward its Sept. 15 plunge into Saturn, following a final, distant flyby of the planet's giant "Early-Earth-like" moon, Titan. The intrepid spacecraft made its closest approach to Titan today at 12:04 p.m. PDT (3:04 p.m. EDT), at an altitude of 73,974 miles (119,049 kilometers) above the moon's surface, and scheduled to make contact with Earth on Sept. 12 at about 6:19 p.m. PDT (9:19 p.m. EDT). Images and other science data taken during the encounter are expected to begin streaming to Earth soon after. Navigators will analyze the spacecraft's trajectory following this downlink to confirm that Cassini is precisely on course to dive into Saturn at the planned time, location and altitude.
In 2015 scientists tackled the question of whether any organic molecules likely to be on Titan could, under such inhospitable conditions, form structures similar to the lipid bilayers of living cells on Earth. Thin and flexible, the lipid bilayer is the main component of the cell membrane, which separates the inside of a cell from the outside world. This team identified acrylonitrile as the best candidate.
Those researchers proposed that acrylonitrile molecules could come together as a sheet of material similar to a cell membrane. The sheet could form a hollow, microscopic sphere that they dubbed an "azotosome." This sphere could serve as a tiny storage and transport container, much like the spheres that lipid bilayers can form.
The Goddard team determined that acrylonitrile is plentiful in Titan's atmosphere, present at concentrations up to 2.8 parts per billion.
The chemical is probably most abundant in the stratosphere, at altitudes of at least 125 miles (200 kilometers). Eventually, acrylonitrile makes its way to the cold lower atmosphere, where it condenses and rains out onto the surface.
The researchers calculated how much material could be deposited in Ligeia Mare, Titan's second-largest lake, which occupies roughly the same surface area as Earth's Lake Huron and Lake Michigan together. Over the lifetime of Titan, the team estimated, Ligeia Mare could have accumulated enough acrylonitrile to form about 10 million azotosomes in every milliliter, or quarter-teaspoon, of liquid. That's compared to roughly a million bacteria per milliliter of coastal ocean water on Earth.
Cassini has made hundreds of passes over Titan during its 13-year tour of the Saturn system—including 127 precisely targeted encounters—some at close range and some, like this one, more distant.
"Cassini has been in a long-term relationship with Titan, with a new rendezvous nearly every month for more than a decade," said Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "This final encounter is something of a bittersweet goodbye, but as it has done throughout the mission, Titan's gravity is once again sending Cassini where we need it to go."
Cassini is ending its 13-year tour of the Saturn system with an intentional plunge into the planet to ensure Saturn's moons—in particular Enceladus, with its subsurface ocean and signs of hydrothermal activity—remain pristine for future exploration. The spacecraft's fateful dive is the final beat in the mission's Grand Finale, 22 weekly dives (begun in late April) through the gap between Saturn and its rings. No spacecraft has ever ventured so close to the planet before.