The Webb Telescope spies clouds beneath the haze of Saturn’s moon Titan

The Webb Telescope spies clouds beneath the haze of Saturn’s moon Titan

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The James Webb Space Telescope has spied clouds on one of the solar system’s most intriguing moons.

In November, the space observatory turned its infrared gaze to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. It is the only moon in our solar system that has a dense atmosphere, four times denser than Earth’s.

Titan’s atmosphere is made up of nitrogen and methane, giving it a hazy, orange appearance. This thick haze prevents visible light from reflecting off the moon’s surface, making it difficult to discern features.

The Webb Telescope observes the universe in infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye: On November 5, the telescope spotted a bright cloud in Titan’s northern hemisphere, and soon after it spotted a second cloud in the atmosphere

The largest cloud was located over Titan’s north polar region near Kraken Mare, the largest known liquid sea of ​​methane on the Moon’s surface.

Titan has Earth-like liquid bodies on its surface, but its rivers, lakes and seas are made of liquid ethane and methane, which form clouds and cause rain from the sky. Researchers also believe that Titan has an internal liquid water ocean.

“The detection of clouds is exciting because it validates long-standing predictions from computer models about Titan’s climate, that clouds would form easily in the northern hemisphere during late summer when the surface is heated by the Sun” , wrote Conor Nixon, a planetarium. scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland NASA Webb Blog.

Nixon is also the lead investigator in the Webb observing program for Titan.

The team of astronomers studying Webb’s observations contacted their colleagues at the WM Keck Observatory in Hawaii to see if follow-up observations could reveal if the clouds were moving or changing shape.

“We were worried that the clouds would disappear when we looked at Titan two days later with Keck, but to our delight there were clouds in the same positions, looking like they had changed shape,” said Imke de Pater, professor emeritus of astronomy at University of California, Berkeley, and Titans observation team leader Keck, in a statement.

Astronomers compared the Webb (left) and Keck images of Titan to see how the clouds evolved.  Cloud A appears to be spinning, while cloud B appears to be dissipating.

Experts in atmospheric modeling helped the team determine that both telescopes had captured observations of seasonal weather patterns on Titan.

Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph instrument was also able to collect data on Titan’s lower atmosphere, which cannot be seen by ground-based observatories. such as Keck due to the interference of the Earth’s atmosphere, in different wavelengths of infrared light.

The data, which is still being analyzed, was able to see deeper into Titan’s atmosphere and surface than the Cassini spacecraft, which orbited Saturn and its moons for 13 years. Webb’s observations could also reveal the cause of a bright feature over Titan’s south pole.

The cloud observations were a long time coming.

“We had been waiting for years to use Webb’s infrared vision to study Titan’s atmosphere, including its fascinating weather patterns and gaseous composition, and also to see through the haze to study the albedo characteristics in the surface,” Nixon said, referring to the bright and dark spots. .

“Titan’s atmosphere is incredibly interesting, not only for its methane clouds and storms, but also for what it can tell us about Titan’s past and future, including whether it always had an atmosphere. We are absolutely delighted with the initial results “.

The team is planning more observations of Titan in June that may provide additional information about the gases in its atmosphere.

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