Webb telescope spies clouds beneath the nebula of Saturn’s moon Titan

Webb telescope spies clouds beneath the nebula 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 on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. It is the only moon in our solar system with a dense atmosphere – four times denser than Earth’s.

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

The Webb telescope observes the universe in infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye – on Nov. 5, the telescope spotted a bright cloud in Titan’s northern hemisphere, and soon after detected a second cloud in the atmosphere.

The larger cloud was located over Titan’s northern polar region near Kraken Mare, the largest known liquid methane sea on the lunar 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 ocean of liquid water.

The instruments of the Webb telescope captured these images of Titan.  Clouds and other features are labeled, including a methane sea called Kraken Mare, the sand dunes of Belet, and a bright spot called Adiri.

“The cloud detection is exciting because it validates long-held computer model predictions about Titan’s climate that clouds would form readily in the mid-northern hemisphere during late summer when the surface is warmed by the sun,” wrote Conor Nixon, a planetary scientist. researcher. scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, op NASA’s Webb blog.

Nixon is also the lead investigator on the Webb observation program for Titan.

The team of astronomers studying the Webb observations contacted colleagues at the WM Keck Observatory in Hawaii to see if follow-up observations could reveal whether the clouds moved or changed shape.

“We were afraid that the clouds would have disappeared when we looked at Titan with Keck two days later, but to our delight there were clouds in the same positions, which looked like they had changed shape,” says Imke de Pater, emeritus professor astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, and leader of the Keck Titan Observing Team, in a statement.

Astronomers compared Webb (left) and Keck images of Titan to see how clouds evolved.  Cloud A appears to rotate, while Cloud B appears to disappear.

Atmospheric modeling experts helped the team determine that the two 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 like Keck due to interference from 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 source of a bright feature over Titan’s south pole.

The cloud sightings were a long time coming.

“We had waited years to use Webb’s infrared vision to study Titan’s atmosphere, including its fascinating weather patterns and gas composition, and also to look through the nebula to study albedo features on the surface,” Nixon said, referring to the bright and dark spots.

“Titan’s atmosphere is incredibly interesting, not only because of its methane clouds and storms, but also because of what it can tell us about Titan’s past and future — including whether it has always had an atmosphere. We were thrilled with the first Results.”

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



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