Surface pictures of faraway worlds, such as those from Mars and the Moon, only go so far toward satisfying our curiosity about what it must really be like to stand on the surface of another planet. Pictures are wondrous, to be sure, but what about indulging the other senses?
Well, now for the first time you can get a whiff of what the air smells like on another world. Using spectrometry data, NASA scientists have figured out how to recreate interplanetary smells right here on Earth, starting with Saturn's moon Titan, reports Discover.
The scientists were able to duplicate the smells of Titan by mixing and matching various gases and hydrocarbons in the lab, and comparing the blend against data collected by the Cassini spacecraft. Once they stumbled upon a recipe that matched the unique spectral signature of Titan’s smoggy atmosphere, they took a whiff.
So what does Titan smell like? Though 'Essence of Titan' could well make a great name for a new brand of cologne, the moon's actual aroma is not quite so alluring as it sounds. According to researchers, it smells mostly like gasoline.
Although that may not sound very appealing, it's at least better than what you might assume given what makes up the bulk Titan's atmosphere: nitrogen and methane. Methane, remember, is one of the primary gases that get expelled when we pass wind. Researchers found that Titan's unique signature could not be matched with these two gases alone, however. So they added more ingredients-- most notably, benzene.
Benzene is a natural component of gasoline. It's also yellowish in color, matching the jaundice haze of Titan's murky smog, and is highly flammable with a sweet aroma. This formula rounded out the scent.
"This is the closest anyone has come, to our knowledge, to recreating with lab experiments this particular feature seen in the Cassini data," said lead author Joshua Sebree.
Titan is one of only four alien worlds for which we have pictures taken from its surface. The other three are Mars, Venus, and our own Moon. Apollo astronauts reported that the Moon had an aroma like burnt gunpowder, but this new account of Titan's smell is our only other whiff of a foreign world to date.
'Essence of Titan' in its current manifestation is close to the signature recorded by Cassini, but it's still not perfect. Researchers are adamant that they will continue to fiddle with the concoction until they've perfected it. After that, it may be possible to recreate the smells of other worlds, too, using the same method.
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