NASA has awarded five-year grants, each approximately $8 million, to three research teams that will study the origins, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe. Sarah Fagents, planetary volcanology researcher at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST), is on the team studying Saturn’s moon, Titan.
According to Fagents, “The single compelling question for this research is: What habitable environments exist on Titan and what resulting potential biosignatures should we look for?”
To address that question, the team that is led by NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist Rosaly Lopes will use data gathered by the Cassini-Huygens mission, together with laboratory experiments and theoretical modeling, to investigate the interactions between the atmosphere, surface and interior that may lead to the development and detection of biosignatures—indicators of past or present life.
After the Cassini’s successful 13-year tour of the Saturn system, there is a wealth of data on Titan’s atmosphere, icy surface, subsurface ocean and rocky interior that is ripe for analysis in this project.
How and where might life be detected on Titan?
Fagents will lead the team that aims to determine how biosignatures can be transported from the ocean to the surface and atmosphere and be recognized there. This will include investigation into the pathways for transport from ocean to surface and atmosphere, how molecules may be altered as they move from the subsurface ocean to the surface, and whether transport to the surface could result in habitable environments along the pathway.
However, her main focus will be studying the physical mechanisms by which fluids or ice can rise through the ice shell of Titan and emerge at the surface, a process termed “cryovolcanism.” This process would also carry any biosignatures that formed in the ocean or ice, thus giving scientists a chance to detect them.
—By Marcie Grabowski