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Unraveling the Composition of Tholins Using Very High Resolution Mass Spectrometry

Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Sarah M.
Hörst (LPL)

The destruction of N2 and CH4 and subsequent complex chemical processes lead to the formation of organic aerosols in Titan's atmosphere. The CAPS (CAssini Plasma Spectrometer) detection of large negative ions (up to 10,000 u/q) in the upper atmosphere (approximately 950 km) suggests that production of aerosols begins much higher in the atmosphere than previously believed. Although CAPS is able to detect these very large molecules it does not have the mass resolution necessary to infer their chemical composition. The ability to create large organic molecules in the upper atmosphere of Titan, or any planet, is of significant astrobiological interest, but further in situ chemical characterization requires another mission. To further our understanding of the formation and composition of these aerosols, laboratory experiments have been designed to produce aerosols under Titan atmospheric conditions. We have characterized Titan aerosol analogues or “tholins” generated in the PAMPRE (Production d'Aérosols en Microgravité par Plasma REactifs) experiment using very high resolution mass spectrometry and find that Titan’s aerosols are likely composed of a large variety of organic molecules, potentially including amino acids and nucleotide bases.

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