NASA’s New Smell-O-scope Experiment Sniffs Saturn’s Moon Titan

NASA’s New Smell-O-scope Experiment Sniffs Saturn’s Moon Titan
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Good news, everyone! NASA has came up with an interplanetary smell-o-scope experiment, processing data from the Cassini spacecraft and reproducing the smell of another world right here on Earth: Saturn’s moon Titan. (Spoiler: It smells like farts mixed with gasoline.)

A team led by Joshua Sebree — assistant professor at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls and former postdoctoral fellow at NASA Goddard — has “created a new recipe that captures key flavours of the brownish-orange atmosphere around Saturn’s largest moon”, enabling us “to classify previously unidentified material discovered by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft in the moon’s smoggy haze.”

How does it smell?

Before this new experiment, scientists couldn’t really make it work. They originally tried mixing nitrogen and methane, the two most common gases in Titan, but that just smells like terrestrial farts: “These experiments never produced a mixture with a spectral signature to match to the one seen by Cassini; neither have similar experiments conducted by other groups.”

Then they start other combinations, adding benzene and other chemicals they thought could correspond to what they were seeing in Cassini’s spectrograms. When they finished the experiment, they analysed the result with an spectrograph and saw that they almost hit a home run. Sebree says that “this is the closest anyone has come, to our knowledge, to recreating with lab experiments this particular feature seen in the Cassini data.”

So how does it smell? According to Melissa Trainer — one of the planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland — “it has a strong aromatic character.”

You can interpret as “it stinks!” but she’s actually talking about the fact that it smells of a subfamily of hydrocarbons known as aromatics. Benzene is part of this family, and it has a “sweet, aromatic, gasoline-like odour.” So, in other words, yes, I imagine Titan reeks a gas station full of people farting as they fill their tanks.

All good news indeed. Now,”if a dog craps anywhere in the universe, you can bet [we] won’t be out of the loop.”

Picture: Photo of Titan taken on May 17, 2014 by the Cassini spacecraft. Processed by Val Klavans.