Saturn’s moon Titan is not only fascinating, but studying it is rather important. Titan has some striking similarities to Earth, it turns out. Although they have entirely different origins and surrounding environments, Titan has 50% higher surface pressure than Earth, this is unique because all other bodies with atmospheres have drastically different surface pressures as well as compositions than Earth. Titan’s atmosphere consists predominantly of nitrogen gas with trace amounts of methane gas, which is very comparable to Earth’s atmospheric composition. What is drastically different and one source of current research is the origin of the methane gas in Titan’s atmosphere, especially since methane has a short lifetime, roughly 10’s of millions of years. So there must be a consistent producer of methane given the flux of solar photons.

On the search for life in the solar system, Titan is a potential candidate, more on the lower end of possibility than Mars, Enceladus, or Europa, but Titan could be an example of a foreign species to our own. Chris P. McKay from NASA’s Ames research division Space Science and Astrobiology states, “Titan is unusual in that it is the only world in the Solar System other than Earth that has a widespread liquid on its surface.”[1] Referring to the fact that Titan’s atmosphere has photochemical processes, McKay suggests it is possible to have some for of life living in the liquid methane on the surface and consuming hydrogen and organic molecules.[2]

Titan is incredibly difficult to observe in visible light because it is covered in a dense layer of haze. This haze is created by the ultraviolet photons from the sun impacting the nitrogen and methane. So to be able to “see” down to Titan’s surface, we must observe it in certain ranges of the far-red and infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. This is important if we want to try and distinguish surface features, particularly methane lakes. Using these different wavelengths we will be able to probe different depths of the atmosphere. Likewise, where methane absorption is low, we will be able probe deeper through the atmosphere.

Answering the questions where the methane is located in Titan’s local latitude/longitude coordinates and how dense, and resolving surface features will be the specific purpose of my research, but this is just a small fraction of what my larger, encompassing group is seeking to learn about this fascinating world.

I intend to explore and manipulate primary data taken of Titan from the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), the Cassini spacecraft (orbiting Saturn’s planetary system), as well as the W.M. Keck Telescope. I will attempt to create a set of image cubes (single false color images of Titan stacked on each other to form a 3d data cube) of Titan from the data using Python, the powerful programming language. Combining my image cubes from the various instruments will provide an opportunity for enhanced charting of methane and haze near the surface due to the different viewing geometries of the different instruments.

The principal aim of the group’s research is to address two current questions about Titan. The first question is aimed at resolving composition of Titan’s lakes, dunes, and other surface features. While the second question focuses on determining if there are detectable sources of the methane in Titan’s atmosphere.

In addition to the data manipulation, I will research further topics such as radiative transfer, which is an important concept in atmospheric research. Radiaitve transfer studies the propagation of energy, and in the context of my project, through an atmosphere. With the study of radiative transfer I will investigate the mathematical concept of Monte Carlo techniques and Markov Chains, which apply the radiaitve transfer equations to track millions of photon’s paths through their journey based off probabilities during absorption, emission and scattering in the atmosphere of the photons. Work completed by Dr. Eliot Young at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in this field and Professor Larry Esposito will be of valuable reference. Along with the Monte Carlo and Markov Chain techniques, I will explore Chapman’s grazing integral, which is being investigated by the group in their modeling program and is related to the initialization of the photon’s paths as they enter the atmosphere, as well as the destinations of the photons. Understanding these topics will allow me to keep in close contact with the group as well as providing me a well-rounded education of the project’s larger objectives.

To provide a necessary background, I have successfully completed courses whose focuses were: atmospheric dynamics, meteorology, planetary atmospheres, introduction to computer programming, and all relevant undergraduate physics and math courses. I feel confident that I will be able to follow the concepts laid out for me by the reference publications, documents, along with Dr. Young and Professor Esposito to understand what is being asked of me for each objective.

This situation will be mutually beneficial for not only me but also Southwest Research Institute and the University of Colorado. This opportunity will allow for further experience that I can take after graduation and apply within my career; I intent to both study atmospheric processes as well as engage in coding/modeling. I will also gain an intimate understanding of collaborative group environment as well as post undergraduate research. Dr. Young and SwRI will get some usable code for future manipulation of data and up to date work in one of the newest languages. Most importantly, they will have images of Titan in several thousand methane related wavelengths to ultimately check their atmospheric models against for accuracy.

Due to the nature of the type of work involved, I will be working remotely from my laptop computer primarily, but I have scheduled at least two meetings a week with my supervisor, Principal investigator for the project, Dr. Young and Professor Esposito in invited to participate in our weekly group meeting when necessary.


[1] The search for life in our Solar System and the implications for science and society

[2] The search for life in our Solar System and the implications for science and society