However, scientists don't know whether Titan's smog particles contain nitrogen. If some of the particles are the same nitrogen-containing organic molecules the UA team created in the laboratory, conditions conducive to life are more likely, Smith said.
Laboratory observations such as these indicate what the next space missions should look for and what instruments should be developed to help in the search, Smith said.
Imanaka and Smith's paper, "Formation of nitrogenated organic aerosols in the Titan upper atmosphere," is scheduled for publication in the Early Online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the week of June 28. NASA provided funding for the research.
The UA researchers wanted to simulate conditions in Titan's thin upper atmosphere because results from the Cassini Mission indicated "extreme UV" radiation hitting the atmosphere created complex organic molecules.
Therefore, Imanaka and Smith used the Advanced Light Source at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's synchroton in Berkeley, Calif. to shoot high-energy UV light into a stainless steel cylinder containing nitrogen-and-methane gas held at very low pressure.
The researchers used a mass spectrometer to analyze the chemicals that resulted from the radiation.
Simple though it sounds, setting up the experimental equipment is complicated. The UV light itself must pass through a series of vacuum chambers on its way into the gas chamber.
Many researchers want to use the Advanced Light Source, so competition for time on the instrument is fierce. Imanaka and Smith were allocated one or two time slots per year, each of which was for eight hours a day for only five to 10 days.
For each time slot, Imanaka and Smith had to pack all the experimental equipment into a van, drive to B
University of Arizona