Dragonfly Student & Early Career Investigator Program Cohort 3- Titan Simulants to Interpret DraMS Data

SES - Space Exploration Sector


Brief Job Description:

TITLE: Volatility of Titan-Relevant Compounds and Implications for Dragonfly Analyses

MENTOR: Dr. Morgan Cable, Jet Propulsion Laboratory

SHORT SUMMARY: This opportunity is for a graduate student to assist the Dragonfly team in understanding how the volatility of components in a Titan surface sample might change when those compounds are present in complex mixtures. Research tasks would include literature searches, calculations/modeling, and experimental work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). This study is important to understand the range of physical properties that the Dragonfly sampling system may encounter, and would aid in the interpretation of DraMS analyses, in particular those involving temperature ramps.

BACKGROUND: One of the primary instruments aboard the Dragonfly spacecraft will be the Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer (DraMS), which will determine the chemical composition of samples that are obtained from Titan’s surface. DraMS will be able to analyze these samples using two modes: (1) laser desorption mode (LDMS), which uses a soft ionization technique at 30 Torr and 165 K (-108 °C) to create ions that are sent into the ion trap of the instrument, and (2) gas chromatography mode (GCMS), where solid samples are heated to ~600 °C in an oven, and the resulting gases are sent through gas chromatography (GC) columns to separate species before an electron beam converts them into ions for measurement in the mass spectrometer. Samples from Titan’s surface are expected to be unlike anything we have encountered before, and work is underway to understand the physical and chemical properties of simple and complex aqueous and organic ices to inform how such samples may behave during collection and analysis by instruments such as DraMS. There are also important implications for surface property measurements and imaging to be performed, as well as the interpreting the interactions with the surface with the DrACO sampling system.

DESCRIPTION: This project focuses on the physical properties of organic and aqueous ices that might determine whether and how the sample is analyzed by DraMS, or how the data obtained might be interpreted.  Specifically, the student will work with Dragonfly scientists to understand how the volatility of Titan-relevant species may change depending on pressure and temperature conditions and heating rates. In addition, the student will experimentally explore whether the volatility of certain species changes if the compound is pure or in a complex mixture or matrix (such as a clathrate or co-crystal).

TASKS: The student would be trained to use a simple pressure manifold with temperature-controlled stage at JPL to measure the pressure change for a wide array of organic and aqueous ices (pure and mixtures) when they are vaporized. The project entails:

1.     Thorough literature search to catalogue reported volatilities of key species expected to be present at Titan under the expected pressure (30-1140 Torr) and temperature (90-873 K) ranges the samples would experience.

2.     Exploration of calculations/modeling (Clausius-Clapeyron, etc.) to extrapolate existing measurements to cover portions of the T-P phase diagram relevant to Titan and/or DraMS that have not been addressed experimentally.

3.     Preparation of various organic and aqueous ice samples (pure and mixtures) and analysis of the maximum pressure reached over a temperature ramp using a pressure manifold at JPL. These would include mixtures that are known to form inclusion compounds (clathrates, co-crystals) which could affect the volatilities of the guest molecules.

4.     Analysis of experimental results and calculation of predicted pressure increases for a Dragonfly sample cup containing volatile compounds that is subjected to analysis by DraMS.

5.     Depending on progress, in the second year the student would repeat tasks 1-4 but focus on mixtures that might undergo chemistry upon vaporization (e.g., carbamation, etc.).

 This project will primarily be completed in a lab at JPL but in close collaboration with Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) and (as appropriate) French GC colleagues residing at several institutions (LATMOS, LISA, LPGM) and other payload scientists at APL.

OUTCOME: This project will contribute to the development of the DraMS instrument and the operational guidelines for measurements of surface samples. Results generated would aid in the interpretation of future DraMS results, and will be archived at JPL and GSFC for further analysis. The study could potentially be published in a scientific journal or presented at a scientific conference. The findings will also be compared with results from a related study concerning the development of a spectral/compositional library for interpretation of DragonCam/DraGNS and potentially DraGMet measurements as part of a larger effort to prepare for surface operations on Titan.

More information on the Dragonfly mission and instruments can be found in the videos at https://dragonfly.jhuapl.edu/Gallery/#Gallery




Academic Discipline Desired:

Pursuing a graduate degree in Physical sciences, with laboratory experience. Murst be starting MS/PhD by Fall22 

Required Skills:

This project requires the ability to work both independently and in a team environment. Successful completion of some coursework in chemistry and physics, and laboratory experience in any physical science or engineering field are required.  

Desired Skills:

Relevant background in thermodynamics, organic chemistry and/or analytical chemistry is desired.  


APPLYING: When applying, each student should include in an attachment (1) a cover letter, (2) a curriculum vitae, CV, (3) the name and contact information for the prospective faculty advisor at their home institution, and (4) a 2-3 sentence statement from the prospective faculty advisor in which (s)he agrees to support the student, should they be selected to work on Dragonfly.

ELIGIBILITY: An intent of this program is to broaden mission participation; thus, it is intended for students who are not affiliated with, and whose faculty and/or research advisors are not involved with, Dragonfly or other spacecraft missions. Students who do not have a background in planetary science, the geosciences, atmospheric science, or their associated subfields are encouraged to apply.

  • Eligible students will have a 3.0 GPA
  • Eligible students must be U.S. citizens pursuing a master's or doctoral degree in the physical sciences, biological sciences, computer sciences, mathematics or engineering at a U.S. institution.
  • Applicants must have demonstrated ability to conduct independent research or development
  • Applicants must have excellent organizational and communication skills (written and oral)
  • In addition to identifying a mentor on the Dragonfly team, applicants must identify a faculty member at their home institution who can serve as a faculty mentor for the 2-year duration of their participation in the program
  • Can demonstrate that you are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. To ensure the safety and well-being of the community, APL has established a policy requiring that all staff be vaccinated against COVID-19. All staff members must provide proof of full vaccination or have an approved medical or religious accommodation by their start date.

 Why work at APL?

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) brings world-class expertise to our nation’s most critical defense, security, space, science, and educational challenges. While we are dedicated to solving complex challenges and pioneering new technologies, what makes us truly outstanding is our culture. We offer a vibrant, welcoming atmosphere where you can bring your authentic self to work, continue to grow, and build strong connections with inspiring teammates. At APL, we celebrate our differences and encourage creativity and bold, new ideas.  APL’s campus is located in the Baltimore-Washington metro area. Learn more about our career opportunities at www.jhuapl.edu/careers.








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