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NASA Fuels U-Idaho Scientist's Research of Outer Space

Physicist Jason Barnes studies Titan, one of Saturn’s moons

Jason Barnes, a University of Idaho physics professor, is looking to Saturn’s largest moon for clues about life on other planets.

In his laboratory on the Moscow campus, he pores over data and photographs of Titan, one of Saturn’s 61 icy moons. Titan is the only moon in the solar system with a thick atmosphere like Earth’s.  He tracks such things as movement of sand, patterns of tectonic activity and the composition of vapors leaving Titan’s surface.

Barnes is one of an elite number of scientists examining mountains of data that since 2004 have been streaming from Titan back to earth since 2004, thanks to the Cassini-Huygens space probe. He was recently selected as a participating scientist on Cassini, an honor that carries with it a $315,000 NASA grant.

Understanding how Earth-like geology is created on Titan is central to understanding other worlds and their potential ability to sustain life, said the assistant professor in the College of Science. 

“Titan is particularly interesting because it is the only place outside Earth that has rain that reaches its surface,” said Barnes, also a principal investigator on three other NASA research projects.

Last month, he joined a panel of experts who summarized decades’ worth of Titan research at the Geological Society of America conference.

He said Titan’s ‘rain’ is made of methane, not water. Rivers of the liquefied methane empty into seas, creating geological formations similar to those on Earth.

Titan -- often described as a planet-like moon -- is a great laboratory, he said, because its surface processes are more complex than those found thus far on any planet other than Earth.

Understanding such variables as Titan’s sands, earthquakes, and rivers may help answer the age-old question of what a habitable planet might like look like, he said.

At the root of his research are mysteries people have pondered for centuries. “How improbable is our existence here? Is life common or rare in the universe?

“This is but the first step on what will probably be a quest that will take a few hundred years – establishing the existence, nature, and diversity of life beyond our planet,” he said.

Infrared color image of Titan from the Cassini Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) instrument. This image shows Titan's dark brown dunefields near the equator, and the dark lake called Kraken Mare near the north pole at top.

This is a VIMS infrared color image of Saturn, illuminated from left. The red glow is thermal emission from the hot lower atmosphere of Saturn; the rest is reflected sunlight.