"Titan is so interesting because its nitrogen-dominated atmosphere and organic chemistry might give us a clue to the origin of life on our Earth," said Imanaka, now an assistant research scientist in the UA's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. "Nitrogen is an essential element of life."
However, not just any nitrogen will do. Nitrogen gas must be converted to a more chemically active form of nitrogen that can drive the reactions that form the basis of biological systems.
Imanaka and Mark Smith converted a nitrogen-methane gas mixture similar to Titan's atmosphere into a collection of nitrogen-containing organic molecules by irradiating the gas with high-energy UV rays. The laboratory set-up was designed to mimic how solar radiation affects Titan's atmosphere.
Titan looks orange in color because a smog of organic molecules envelops the planet. The particles in the smog will eventually settle down to the surface and may be exposed to conditions that could create life, said Imanaka, who is also a principal investigator at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif.
However, scientists don't know whether Titan's smog particles contain nitrogen. If some of the particles are the same nitrogen-containing organic molecules the UA team created in the laboratory, conditions conducive to life are more likely, Smith said.