Scientists bring Saturn to Melbourne

September marks the end of one of NASA’s most ambitious and successful space missions, but its legacy will live on in Melbourne thanks to the efforts of La Trobe University space scientists.

Inspired by the Cassini orbiter’s exploration mission to Saturn and its icy moons, La Trobe astrochemist Courtney Ennis and PhD student Rebecca Auchettl have used mission data to recreate distant solar system environments in the lab.

Around 1.2 billion kilometres from the ringed planet, at the Australian Synchrotron, the team has concocted a noxious mix of hydrocarbons and cyanides inside a specialised gas cell to simulate the inhospitable atmosphere of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

“Titan’s current atmosphere is thought to be somewhat reminiscent of a primitive, lifeless Earth,” Dr Ennis said.

“As Cassini has catalogued a range of compounds familiar to Earth, by studying Titan’s unique chemical composition we can start to unravel the origins of Earth’s organic material at an early starting point – a point frozen in time.”

Dr Ennis said data and images collected by Cassini during its 13-year mission have confirmed that, unlike water on Earth, it is hydrocarbons such as liquid methane that have formed out Titan’s craggy landscape.

“The clouds and rain of Titan are not formed from water, but a toxic combination of chemicals which have then carved out fascinating river and lake features on the moon’s surface,” Dr Ennis said.

“Exposure to sunlight and space radiation has seen these simple chemical ingredients react slowly over time to form an abundance of more complex, biologically relevant molecules.”

Almost 20 years after take-off, the Cassini orbiter will plunge through Saturn’s iconic rings one last time and disappear into the gas giant’s atmosphere on 15 September 2017.

As the only scientists in Australia to have utilised the sensing capabilities of the Australian Synchrotron to study extra-terrestrial atmospheres, the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science researchers are in a unique position to conduct further research.

“Cassini’s mission may be coming to an end, but we have a wealth of data to build upon,” Ms AuchettI said.

“We can’t go back to when Earth was formed to study its origins, but we can study planets like Saturn which remain untouched. For us they are pristine laboratories that can help answer the age old question of where did we come from.”

Media Contact - Anastasia Salamastrakis 0428 195 464

Picture: Dr Courtney Ennis and Rebecca Auchettl at the Synchrotron