Saturn's moon Titan offers clues to the origins and chemical evolution of the solar system

UH Manoa physical chemist leads interdisciplinary research team awarded $2.4 million to study Titan's atmosphere

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Ralf Kaiser, (808) 956-5731
Department of Chemistry
Kristen Bonilla, (808) 956-5039
External Affairs & University Relations
Posted: Oct 31, 2006

HONOLULU — Hydrocarbon-based atmospheric layers on Titan, Saturn‘s moon, that have unique properties allowing for preservation of astrobiologically important molecules may yield vital clues on the chemical composition of the Earth‘s atmosphere a few billions of years ago. According to scientists, information gained from analyzing these molecules could also lead to a greater understanding of the origin and chemical evolution of the solar system.

Ralf Kaiser, a physical chemist and associate professor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, is leading an interdisciplinary group of researchers from around the world recently awarded a five-year, $2.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation‘s (NSF) Collaborative Research in Chemistry (CRC) Program to aid their study of Titan‘s atmosphere.

Titan‘s atmosphere is considered ideal for providing such scientific understanding because it offers the potential to reconstruct the scene of the primordial terrestrial atmosphere as Titan and proto-Earth are believed to have emerged with similar atmospheres from the Solar Nebula. In addition, the hydrocarbon molecules present in Titan‘s atmospheric layers absorb the destructive ultraviolet radiation from the sun, creating a low surface temperature and acting as "prebiotic ozone" to preserve astrobiologically important molecules.

"Understanding the formation and growth mechanisms of these molecules and applying these findings to better comprehend the hydrocarbon chemistry of Titan‘s atmosphere is a key objective of our project," says Kaiser. "We will be developing a tightly integrated collaborative network spanning the full range from fundamental studies in electronic structure theory, photochemistry, reaction dynamics, and kinetics, to applications in planetary chemistry and observations of Titan utilizing the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility on Mauna Kea in collaboration with astronomer Alan Tokunaga of the UH Institute for Astronomy."

Other institutions participating in the study include Wayne State University, Florida International University, Emory University, California Institute of Technology, and France‘s University of Rennes.

As part of the NSF CRC Program, the investigators will also collaborate on an educational outreach and training component to the project. These activities will include bringing teaching innovation to the research team‘s departments and preparing novel teaching material; organizing annual scientific workshops; encouraging researchers and graduate and undergraduate students to do hands-on research in chemical reaction dynamics, theoretical chemistry and astrochemistry; broadening the participation of underrepresented minorities in research and educational activities at the participating institutions; and expanding public awareness and relaying the latest breakthroughs to students and teachers at all levels.

The team is already organizing its first workshop on the subject, which is scheduled for February 2007. For more information about the Titan study and the workshop, visit .

The grant received by Kaiser‘s research team is one of six awarded by the NSF CRC Program out of 118 preliminary proposals that were submitted. The program is designed to promote interdisciplinary, collaborative research in a coherent, defined project at the forefront of the chemical sciences.

For more information about the NSF CRC Program, visit .

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