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Tricorder Tech: Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer (DraMS) Will Study Complex Chemistry On Titan

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Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer (DraMS)

A new NASA mission to Saturn’s giant moon, Titan, is due to launch in 2027. When it arrives in the mid-2030s, it will begin a journey of discovery that could bring about a new understanding of the development of life in the universe.

 

This mission, called Dragonfly, will carry an instrument called the Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer (DraMS), designed to help scientists hone in on the chemistry at work on Titan. It may also shed light on the kinds of chemical steps that occurred on Earth that ultimately led to the formation of life, called prebiotic chemistry.

Titan’s abundant complex carbon-rich chemistry, interior ocean, and past presence of liquid water on the surface make it an ideal destination to study prebiotic chemical processes and the potential habitability of an extraterrestrial environment.

Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer (DraMS) – NASA

DraMS will allow scientists back on Earth to remotely study the chemical makeup of the Titanian surface. “We want to know if the type of chemistry that could be important for early pre-biochemical systems on Earth is taking place on Titan,” explains Dr. Melissa Trainer of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland.

Trainer is a planetary scientist and astrobiologist who specializes in Titan and is one of the Dragonfly mission’s deputy principal investigators. She is also lead on the DraMS instrument, which will scan through measurements of samples from Titan’s surface material for evidence of prebiotic chemistry.

To accomplish this, the Dragonfly robotic rotorcraft will capitalize on Titan’s low gravity and dense atmosphere to fly between different points of interest on Titan’s surface, spread as far as several miles apart. This allows Dragonfly to relocate its entire suite of instruments to a new site when the previous one has been fully explored, and provides access to samples in environments with a variety of geologic histories.

At each site, samples less than a gram in size will be drilled out of the surface by the Drill for Acquisition of Complex Organics (DrACO) and brought inside the lander’s main body, to a place called the “attic” that houses the DraMS instrument. There, they will be irradiated by an onboard laser or vaporized in an oven to be measured by DraMS. A mass spectrometer is an instrument that analyzes the various chemical components of a sample by separating these components down into their base molecules and passing them through sensors for identification.

“DraMS is designed to look at the organic molecules that may be present on Titan, at their composition and distribution in different surface environments,” says Trainer. Organic molecules contain carbon and are used by all known forms of life. They are of interest in understanding the formation of life because they can be created by living and non-living processes.

Mass spectrometers determine what’s in a sample by ionizing the material (that is, bombarding it with energy so that the atoms therein become positively or negatively charged) and examining the chemical composition of the various compounds. This involves determining the relationship between the weight of the molecule and its charge, which serves as a signature for the compound.

DraMS was developed in part by the same team at Goddard which developed the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite aboard the Curiosity rover. DraMS is designed to survey samples of Titanian surface material in situ, using techniques tested on Mars with the SAM suite.

DraMS LDMS prototype setup at GSFC (top left) with the cross-section of the LDMS-relevant region that mimics key aspects of the flight design enlarged (right). DrACO LDMS sample cup prototype used in the testing reported here is shown (bottom left) together with the mesh window through which the ultraviolet laser (typically 5 pulses with 20 μJ pulse energy) interrogates the sample. — NASA

Trainer emphasized the benefits of this heritage. Dragonfly’s scientists did not want to “reinvent the wheel” when it came to searching for organic compounds on Titan, and instead built on established methods which have been applied on Mars and elsewhere. “This design has given us an instrument that’s very flexible, that can adapt to the different types of surface samples,” says Trainer.

MS/MS fragmentation pattern of the diagnostic fragment peak of Chlorophyll a at m/z = 614 Da obtained on the DraMS breadboard system utilizing 2.9% CH4 in N2 gas mixture (top) and the commercial Thermo MALDI LTQ XLsystem employing Helium as the collision gas (bottom). NASA

DraMS and other science instruments on Dragonfly are being designed and built under the direction of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, which manages the mission for NASA and is designing and building the rotorcraft-lander. The team includes key partners at Goddard, the French space agency (CNES, Paris, France), which is providing the Gas Chromatograph Module for DraMS that will provide an additional separation after leaving the oven, Lockheed Martin Space, Littleton, Colorado, NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Federal Airfield in California’s Silicon Valley, NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, Penn State University, State College, Pennsylvania, Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, California, Honeybee Robotics, Brooklyn, New York, the German Aerospace Center (DLR), Cologne, Germany, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Tokyo, Japan.

Dragonfly is the fourth mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program. New Frontiers is managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate Washington.

Additional references

Laser Desorption Mass Spectrometry at Saturn’s moon Titan, International Journal of Mass Spectrometry (open access)

Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer Investigation at Titan. COSPAR 2022 Abstract (open access)

Development of the Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer (DraMS) for Titan , LPSC 2021 Abstract (open access)

Selection and Analytical Performances of the Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer Gas Chromatographic Columns to Support the Search for Organic Molecules of Astrobiological Interest on Titan, Astrobiology (paywall)

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Las Vegas Aces Rookie Kate Martin Suffers Ankle Injury in Game Against Chicago Sky

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Las Vegas Aces rookie Kate Martin had to be helped off the floor and taken to the locker room after suffering an apparent ankle injury in the first quarter of Tuesday night’s game against the Chicago Sky.

Late in the first quarter, Martin was pushing the ball up the court when she appeared to twist her ankle and lost her balance. The rookie was in serious pain, lying on the floor before eventually being helped off. Her entire team came out in support, and although she managed to put some pressure on the leg, she was taken to the locker room for further evaluation.

Martin returned to the team’s bench late in the second quarter but was ruled out for the remainder of the game.

“Kate Martin is awesome. Kate Martin picks up things so quickly, she’s an amazing sponge,” Aces guard Kelsey Plum said of the rookie during the preseason. “I think (coach) Becky (Hammon) nicknamed her Kate ‘Money’ Martin. I think that’s gonna stick. And when I say ‘money,’ it’s not just about scoring and stuff, she’s just in the right place at the right time. She just makes people better. And that’s what Becky values, that’s what our coaching staff values and that’s why she’s gonna be a great asset to our team.”

Las Vegas selected Martin in the second round of the 2024 WNBA Draft. She was coming off the best season of her collegiate career at Iowa, where she averaged 13.1 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game during the 2023-24 campaign. Martin’s integration into the Aces organization has been seamless, with her quickly earning the respect and admiration of her teammates and coaches.

The team and fans alike are hoping for a speedy recovery for Martin, whose contributions have been vital to the Aces’ performance this season.

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Asteroid Apophis will visit Earth in 2029, and this European satellite will be along for the ride

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The European Space Agency is fast-tracking a new mission called Ramses, which will fly to near-Earth asteroid 99942 Apophis and join the space rock in 2029 when it comes very close to our planet — closer even than the region where geosynchronous satellites sit.

Ramses is short for Rapid Apophis Mission for Space Safety and, as its name suggests, is the next phase in humanity’s efforts to learn more about near-Earth asteroids (NEOs) and how we might deflect them should one ever be discovered on a collision course with planet Earth.

In order to launch in time to rendezvous with Apophis in February 2029, scientists at the European Space Agency have been given permission to start planning Ramses even before the multinational space agency officially adopts the mission. The sanctioning and appropriation of funding for the Ramses mission will hopefully take place at ESA’s Ministerial Council meeting (involving representatives from each of ESA’s member states) in November of 2025. To arrive at Apophis in February 2029, launch would have to take place in April 2028, the agency says.

This is a big deal because large asteroids don’t come this close to Earth very often. It is thus scientifically precious that, on April 13, 2029, Apophis will pass within 19,794 miles (31,860 kilometers) of Earth. For comparison, geosynchronous orbit is 22,236 miles (35,786 km) above Earth’s surface. Such close fly-bys by asteroids hundreds of meters across (Apophis is about 1,230 feet, or 375 meters, across) only occur on average once every 5,000 to 10,000 years. Miss this one, and we’ve got a long time to wait for the next.

When Apophis was discovered in 2004, it was for a short time the most dangerous asteroid known, being classified as having the potential to impact with Earth possibly in 2029, 2036, or 2068. Should an asteroid of its size strike Earth, it could gouge out a crater several kilometers across and devastate a country with shock waves, flash heating and earth tremors. If it crashed down in the ocean, it could send a towering tsunami to devastate coastlines in multiple countries.

Over time, as our knowledge of Apophis’ orbit became more refined, however, the risk of impact  greatly went down. Radar observations of the asteroid in March of 2021 reduced the uncertainty in Apophis’ orbit from hundreds of kilometers to just a few kilometers, finally removing any lingering worries about an impact — at least for the next 100 years. (Beyond 100 years, asteroid orbits can become too unpredictable to plot with any accuracy, but there’s currently no suggestion that an impact will occur after 100 years.) So, Earth is expected to be perfectly safe in 2029 when Apophis comes through. Still, scientists want to see how Apophis responds by coming so close to Earth and entering our planet’s gravitational field.

“There is still so much we have yet to learn about asteroids but, until now, we have had to travel deep into the solar system to study them and perform experiments ourselves to interact with their surface,” said Patrick Michel, who is the Director of Research at CNRS at Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur in Nice, France, in a statement. “Nature is bringing one to us and conducting the experiment itself. All we need to do is watch as Apophis is stretched and squeezed by strong tidal forces that may trigger landslides and other disturbances and reveal new material from beneath the surface.”

The Goldstone radar’s imagery of asteroid 99942 Apophis as it made its closest approach to Earth, in March 2021. (Image credit: NASA/JPL–Caltech/NSF/AUI/GBO)

By arriving at Apophis before the asteroid’s close encounter with Earth, and sticking with it throughout the flyby and beyond, Ramses will be in prime position to conduct before-and-after surveys to see how Apophis reacts to Earth. By looking for disturbances Earth’s gravitational tidal forces trigger on the asteroid’s surface, Ramses will be able to learn about Apophis’ internal structure, density, porosity and composition, all of which are characteristics that we would need to first understand before considering how best to deflect a similar asteroid were one ever found to be on a collision course with our world.

Besides assisting in protecting Earth, learning about Apophis will give scientists further insights into how similar asteroids formed in the early solar system, and, in the process, how  planets (including Earth) formed out of the same material.

One way we already know Earth will affect Apophis is by changing its orbit. Currently, Apophis is categorized as an Aten-type asteroid, which is what we call the class of near-Earth objects that have a shorter orbit around the sun than Earth does. Apophis currently gets as far as 0.92 astronomical units (137.6 million km, or 85.5 million miles) from the sun. However, our planet will give Apophis a gravitational nudge that will enlarge its orbit to 1.1 astronomical units (164.6 million km, or 102 million miles), such that its orbital period becomes longer than Earth’s.

It will then be classed as an Apollo-type asteroid.

Ramses won’t be alone in tracking Apophis. NASA has repurposed their OSIRIS-REx mission, which returned a sample from another near-Earth asteroid, 101955 Bennu, in 2023. However, the spacecraft, renamed OSIRIS-APEX (Apophis Explorer), won’t arrive at the asteroid until April 23, 2029, ten days after the close encounter with Earth. OSIRIS-APEX will initially perform a flyby of Apophis at a distance of about 2,500 miles (4,000 km) from the object, then return in June that year to settle into orbit around Apophis for an 18-month mission.

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Furthermore, the European Space Agency still plans on launching its Hera spacecraft in October 2024 to follow-up on the DART mission to the double asteroid Didymos and Dimorphos. DART impacted the latter in a test of kinetic impactor capabilities for potentially changing a hazardous asteroid’s orbit around our planet. Hera will survey the binary asteroid system and observe the crater made by DART’s sacrifice to gain a better understanding of Dimorphos’ structure and composition post-impact, so that we can place the results in context.

The more near-Earth asteroids like Dimorphos and Apophis that we study, the greater that context becomes. Perhaps, one day, the understanding that we have gained from these missions will indeed save our planet.

 

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McMaster Astronomy grad student takes a star turn in Killarney Provincial Park

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Astronomy PhD candidate Veronika Dornan served as the astronomer in residence at Killarney Provincial Park. She’ll be back again in October when the nights are longer (and bug free). Dornan has delivered dozens of talks and shows at the W.J. McCallion Planetarium and in the community. (Photos by Veronika Dornan)

Veronika Dornan followed up the April 8 total solar eclipse with another awe-inspiring celestial moment.

This time, the astronomy PhD candidate wasn’t cheering alongside thousands of people at McMaster — she was alone with a telescope in the heart of Killarney Provincial Park just before midnight.

Dornan had the park’s telescope pointed at one of the hundreds of globular star clusters that make up the Milky Way. She was seeing light from thousands of stars that had travelled more than 10,000 years to reach the Earth.

This time there was no cheering: All she could say was a quiet “wow”.

Dornan drove five hours north to spend a week at Killarney Park as the astronomer in residence. part of an outreach program run by the park in collaboration with the Allan I. Carswell Observatory at York University.

Dornan applied because the program combines her two favourite things — astronomy and the great outdoors. While she’s a lifelong camper, hiker and canoeist, it was her first trip to Killarney.

Bruce Waters, who’s taught astronomy to the public since 1981 and co-founded Stars over Killarney, warned Dornan that once she went to the park, she wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.

The park lived up to the hype. Everywhere she looked was like a painting, something “a certain Group of Seven had already thought many times over.”

The dome telescopes at Killarney Provincial Park.

She spent her days hiking the Granite Ridge, Crack and Chikanishing trails and kayaking on George Lake.  At night, she went stargazing with campers — or at least tried to. The weather didn’t cooperate most evenings — instead of looking through the park’s two domed telescopes, Dornan improvised and gave talks in the amphitheatre beneath cloudy skies.

Dornan has delivered dozens of talks over the years in McMaster’s W.J. McCallion Planetarium and out in the community, but “it’s a bit more complicated when you’re talking about the stars while at the same time fighting for your life against swarms of bugs.”

When the campers called it a night and the clouds parted, Dornan spent hours observing the stars. “I seriously messed up my sleep schedule.”

She also gave astrophotography a try during her residency, capturing images of the Ring Nebula and the Great Hercules Cluster.

A star cluster image by Veronika Dornan

“People assume astronomers take their own photos. I needed quite a lot of guidance for how to take the images. It took a while to fiddle with the image properties, but I got my images.”

Dornan’s been invited back for another week-long residency in bug-free October, when longer nights offer more opportunities to explore and photograph the final frontier.

She’s aiming to defend her PhD thesis early next summer, then build a career that continues to combine research and outreach.

“Research leads to new discoveries which gives you exciting things to talk about. And if you’re not connecting with the public then what’s the point of doing research?”

 

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