Dunedin scientist setting parameters for Titan probe

Life and its building blocks is no longer just about birds and bees — it turns out a Dragonfly is also involved now.

University of Otago department of chemistry lecturer and Marsden Fund researcher Dr Courtney Ennis is replicating the atmosphere of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, in his Dunedin laboratory, so he can explore how co-crystals found on Titan can generate life’s building blocks.

He said Titan was an analog to the very early Earth, and could provide clues to how life might have arisen here.

In June 2027, Nasa is due to send a new probe to Titan, called Dragonfly — a rotorcraft which will fly to dozens of promising locations, looking for prebiotic chemical processes common on both Titan and Earth.

The Dragonfly drone will explore dozens of locations across Titan, sampling and measuring the compositions of the moon’s organic surface materials. PHOTO: NASA/JOHNS HOPKINS APL
The Dragonfly drone will explore dozens of locations across Titan, sampling and measuring the compositions of the moon’s organic surface materials. PHOTO: NASA/JOHNS HOPKINS APL

During its 2.7-year baseline mission, Dragonfly will explore diverse environments from organic dunes to the floor of an impact crater where liquid water and complex organic materials key to life once existed together for possibly tens of thousands of years.

Its instruments will study how far prebiotic chemistry may have progressed.

Most importantly, the instruments will search for chemical evidence of past or extant life.

Much of what Dr Ennis is researching in his Dunedin laboratory will help Dragonfly know what to look for when it arrives at Titan in 2036.

‘‘We’re really looking at the chemical evolution that led up to biological molecules and molecules that are important for the origin of life.’’ 

University of Otago scientist Courtney Ennis at Mellor Labs on Tuseday morning. PHOTO: Gregor Richardson
University of Otago scientist Courtney Ennis. PHOTO: Gregor Richardson

 

john.lewis@odt.co.nz 

 

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