Images of Titan excite NU profs

Jordan Weissmann

Northwestern professors said they are thrilled by the revelations of the Huygens space mission to Saturn’s largest moon, especially the confirmation that building blocks for life exist beyond Earth.

On Jan. 14 the European Space Agency landed the Huygens space probe on the surface of Titan, the largest moon of the sixth planet from the sun. The probe conducted a molecular analysis of the moon’s atmosphere and terrain while capturing a series of photographs, including the image of an arid-looking, orange surface reminiscent of Mars.

“I think that the general consensus is that everyone is extremely pleased,” said physics and astronomy Prof. Michael Smutko.

Smutko said many scientists have long predicted that the surface of Titan might be similar in composition to the “primordial soup” that made the earliest forms of life on Earth possible.

Analysis by the Huygens probe confirmed this theory when it detected the presence of simple organic molecules — such as methane, propane and hydrogen — which can combine into the proteins found in the most basic organisms.

This discovery provides strong support for continuing the search for extraterrestrial life, Smutko said.

“It might be easier than people have thought to find these conditions,” he said. “That’s certainly not evidence in favor of life anywhere, but it says the possibility can’t be ruled out.”

Geological sciences Prof. Donna Jurdy said it was a “shock” just to see the mission succeed, particularly in light of the trouble the Europeans have experienced with their space program. About two-thirds of these missions end in failure, she said.

“It gets very discouraging when everything fails,” she added.

Physics and astronomy Prof. Mel Ulmer said the probe’s mission is part of a greater push toward expanded space exploration.

“NASA right now under our current president’s administration has taken on an exploration initiative,” Ulmer said. “And we’re going to do that whether or not this mission is giving it an extra boost.”

The exploration initiative includes plans to relaunch travel to the moon as practice for an eventual mission to Mars, Ulmer said. Such exploration could be a boon to certain fields of science.

“Planetary geologists salivate about people walking on Mars with a pick ax,” he said.

On an educational level, the Huygens discoveries help make the field of planetary exploration more concrete, said geological sciences Prof. Suzan Van Der Lee. Teaching about space, she said, can become troublesome if lectures are mired in layers of abstract theory. Photographs, such as those taken by Huygens, provide welcome respite.

“The greatest thing about these missions for a teaching professor is they make space much more real,” she said.

Reach Jordan Weissmann at jwe[email protected].