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Astrophysicists Use NASA Grant to Study Surface Liquids and Volatile Compounds on Venus, Mars and Titan

Astrophysicists Use NASA Grant to Study Surface Liquids and Volatile Compounds on Venus, Mars and Titan

Researchers at the University of Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences have

received three NASA grants totaling more than $1 million to study conditions on Venus, Mars and Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

The grants focus on the study of surface liquids and volatile compounds on the unique planetary environments.

Specifically, the grants are:

  • A three-year, $434,000 cooperative grant with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study the formation of ice islands on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Data from the Cassini spacecraft, which was launched in 1997 and went into Saturn orbit in 2004, showed the presence of so-called “magic islands” that appeared in Titan’s seas of liquid methane and ethane between flyovers. Researchers at MIT will study the Cassini data, while U of A assistant research professor Vincent Chevrier will work with  graduate students, using the Center’s W.M. Keck Laboratory for Planetary Simulation to attempt to recreate the conditions under which the islands form.
  • A three-year, $326,000 grant to study radar anomalies on the surface of Venus. Radar data indicate the presence of a high-altitude “snowline” made up of semi-metallic compounds that could be condensing out of the planet’s atmosphere or reacting with its basaltic surface. Chevrier’s research aims to determine which volatile compounds in the Venusian atmosphere could create the radar signatures and how the planet’s extreme pressure affects their stability.
  • A three-year, $291,000 grant to analyze data on relative humidity gathered at the polar region of Mars by the Phoenix lander in 2008, and at the planet’s equatorial region gathered by the Mars Science Laboratory. The goal of the research is to determine how the Martian surface affects the water cycle and the accumulation of surface brines. Edgard Rivera-Valentin, a planetary scientist at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and a former graduate student at the U of A, is the grant’s primary investigator. Chevrier is the co-investigator.

The Titan study could help scientists better understand the hydrological processes, and

Vincent F. Chevrier. W.M. Keck Laboratory for Space and Planetary Simulation.

Vincent F. Chevrier. W.M. Keck Laboratory for Space and Planetary Simulation.

ultimately habitability, of a place without water, Chevrier said. Though the Venus study has few astrobiological implications, it will add to the small number of research projects that have been done on a planet of approximately the same size and as Earth.

“How did two planets so similar in overall size and composition turn out to be so different?” he said.

The Mars study has implications for the availability of water, and ultimately habitability, on the planet.

About The Author

Bob Whitby writes about bioscience, geoscience, physics, space and planetary sciences, psychology and sociology. Reach him at 479-575-4737, or whitby@uark.edu.

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