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NASA can now sniff out distant planets and moons: Here's how

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NASA says scientists have successfully "sniffed out" the atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan, recreating the smell of a distant world here on Earth.

The researchers say they used data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft in orbit around the ringed planet to come up with a formulation of gases that accurately matches what's going on above Titan.

The scientists studying the data were able to create "a new recipe that captures key flavors of the brownish-orange atmosphere around Saturn's largest moon," says research leader Joshua Sebree of the University of Northern Iowa, a former postdoctoral fellow at the space agency's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

Their investigation allowed them to identify material recorded by  the Cassini spacecraft in the moon's smoggy atmosphere, Sebree said.

Previous attempts to mimic the moon's atmosphere by combining the two gases most common on Titan -- methane and nitrogen -- proved unsuccessful, he said.

"These experiments never produced a mixture with a spectral signature to match to the one seen by Cassini; neither have similar experiments conducted by other groups," Sebree said.

Adding benzene along with some other related chemicals they believed might match what Cassini's spectrograms were showing brought them closer, the researchers reported.

"This is the closest anyone has come, to our knowledge, to recreating with lab experiments this particular feature seen in the Cassini data," Sebree said.

So what does Titan smell like?

To begin with, "it has a strong aromatic character," says Goddard planetary scientist Mellissa Trainer.

She was referring to a group of hydrocarbons called aromatics -- which includes benzene, which he described as having a "sweet, aromatic, gasoline-like odor."

Benzene is a particularly stable aromatic compound common on Earth.

So the next time you fill up at your local gas station, have a sniff -- and think of Titan.

Analyzing the atmospheres of distant words will be important for future missions that might look for extraterrestrial life, as such life would likely display its presence through the composition of a world's atmosphere, scientists say.

The researcher could help create a profile of likely atmospheric signatures suggesting the presence of life, they say.

Titan is revealing just such a "smell" profile, NASA scientists say.

"Titan's chemical makeup is veritable zoo of complex molecules," said Scott Edgington, Cassini Deputy Project Scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

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