UH researcher looks to volcanoes on Saturn's moons in search of other life

UH researcher looks to volcanoes on Saturn's moons in search of other life
A diagram showing Titan's ocean, surface and atmosphere. (Image: Athanasios Karagiotas and Theoni Shalamberidze)
A diagram showing Titan's ocean, surface and atmosphere. (Image: Athanasios Karagiotas and Theoni Shalamberidze)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Is there life outside our world? A researcher at the University of Hawaii is taking steps to answer that question.

Planetary Volcanology Researcher Sarah Fagents will take part in NASA-funded research investigating the habitability of Titan, a Saturn moon which NASA calls one of the most Earth-like places in the solar system.

"It's a very intriguing world, it's got this very dense, hazy atmosphere that's rich in organics," Fagents said of Titan.

To understand her research, you first need to understand a little bit about Titan. The moon's icy surface has an interior ocean underneath it. This ocean could contain organic molecules, energy and nutrients.

"So there could be all the ingredients you need for life to evolve," Fagents said.

Her research will aim to figure out how to get traces of potential life back up to the surface where they can be detected by a spacecraft.

"So I am looking into the physical mechanisms by which fluids move through icy crusts," she said.

Scientists have suspected cryovolcanoes, or ice volcanoes, might inhabit Titan. These share similar mechanics seen in a volcano on earth, except ice and water replace rock and magma.

Fagents will also be exploring other means of transporting these biosignatures to the surface. She says the research will be one of her major focuses for the next five years.

Her research will be one of four components in a Jet Propulsion Laboratory project looking into the habitability of Titan. The other components will study how Titan's ocean receives organic molecules, how it may be habitable, and what signs of life may be there.

"The long term objective would be to send another mission back," she said.

Another mission is not yet planned, but JPL's upcoming research will help figure out what types of instruments would be needed in order to go back and detect life forms.

The project is funded by an $8 million grant awarded by NASA.

The grant comes at a time when NASA is also investigating an underwater volcano off the Big Island called Loihi. Researchers believe Loihi offers a good representation of the conditions scientists believe exist on certain moons in the outer solar system, like Titan.

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