Scientists studying the atmosphere of Saturn's moon, Titan, hope their research will reveal clues about the nature of Earth's atmosphere billions of years ago.
Ralf Kaiser, a University of Hawaii physical chemist and associate professor, is leading the team of international scientists recently awarded a five-year, $2.5 million grant for the project from the National Science Foundation's Collaborative Research in Chemistry Program.
Titan's atmosphere is considered ideal for gaining a better understanding of the early days of Earth's atmosphere because it and proto-Earth are believed to have emerged with similar atmospheres from the solar nebula — the cloud of dust and gas from which it is believed our solar system originated.
Hydrocarbon molecules in Titan's atmospheric layers also absorb destructive ultraviolet radiation from the sun, preserving other molecules that are important for understanding the origin and evolution of the planets.
"Understanding the formation and growth mechanisms of these molecules and applying these findings to better comprehend the hydrocarbon chemistry of Titan's atmosphere is a key objective of our project," Kaiser said.
Researchers will be observing Titan using the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility on the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island.
Other schools participating in the project include Wayne State University, Florida International University, Emory University, California Institute of Technology and France's University of Rennes.
As part of the project, the team will also develop teaching materials and organize annual scientific workshops as well as attempt to broaden the participation of minorities in research at the participating schools, and encourage more graduate and undergraduate students in general to do hands-on research in fields such as astrochemistry.
The team's first workshop is scheduled for February 2007.