Large and planet-like, Saturn's moon, Titan, has intrigued astronomers for centuries, with its murky atmosphere and large, liquid-filled oceans, 746 million miles from Earth. For the past 10 years, NASA's Cassini Solstice mission has been probing the Saturn system, yielding huge amounts of data for scientists to interpret. Recently, Darci Snowden, Central Washington University professor of physics, was awarded $184,165 from NASA to study data about Titan’s volatile atmosphere.
"We want to understand the process that affects Titan's atmosphere," said Snowden. "It is interesting to scientists because its nitrogen-rich atmosphere may be similar to what Earth's atmosphere was like before life appeared."
Snowden’s work will center on developing a 3D model of how charged particles in Saturn’s magnetosphere—the area of space, around a planet that is controlled by that planet’s magnetic field—interact with Titan’s vast atmosphere. Titan’s atmosphere is made up of complex organic molecules that are affected by this magnetosphere.
A magnetosphere is produced by the interaction of a stream of charged particles, such as the solar wind, with a planet's magnetic field. The solar wind constantly blasts from the sun in all directions, at about one million miles per hour throughout our solar system. All planets with an internally generated magnetic field, including Earth, are surrounded by a magnetosphere.
“In particular, we need to understand how magnetospheric particles precipitate into—and ionize, heat, sputter, and excite—Titan's atmosphere. Our goal is to develop models that will help interpret the wealth of data that Cassini is sending back,” she added.
Snowden’s research will explore the first steps of the chemical reactions that form complex organic materials—the kind that led to the creation of life on Earth.
Her three-year grant, “Magnetospheric Ionization and Energy Deposition in Titan's Upper Atmosphere,” will provide hands-on opportunities for CWU students in the physics department.
Snowden received her doctorate in geophysics from the University of Washington, and was a research associate at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona.
“I’ve always been interested in space, since I was a little kid,” she said, “space camp, the whole works! I studied physics, and later geophysics, to pursue space science.”
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
For more information about Cassini, visit www.nasa.gov/cassini and saturn.jpl.nasa.gov
Photo: Titan, the second largest moon in our solar system, with its characteristic organonitrogen atmospheric haze. Photo courtesy of NASA.
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