Every day is a bad-air day on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Blanketed by haze far worse than any smog belched out in Los Angeles, Beijing or even Sherlock Holmes’s London, the moon looks like a dirty orange ball.
Described once as crude oil without the sulfur, the haze is made of tiny droplets of hydrocarbons with other, more noxious chemicals mixed in. Gunk.
Now, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has revealed thin, wispy clouds of ice particles, similar to Earth’s cirrus clouds, according to Carrie Anderson and Robert Samuelson at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The findings, published this week in the journal Icarus, were made using the composite infrared spectrometer on NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.
The ice clouds have the pearly white appearance of freshly fallen snow. Their existence is the latest clue to the workings of Titan’s intriguing atmosphere and its one-way “cycle” that delivers hydrocarbons and other organic compounds to the ground as precipitation. Those compounds don’t evaporate to replenish the atmosphere, but somehow the supply has not run out yet.
“This is the first time we have been able to get details about these clouds,” says Samuelson, an emeritus scientist at Goddard and the co-author of the paper. “Previously, we had a lot of information about the gases in Titan’s atmosphere but not much about the [high-altitude] clouds.”
Compared to the puffy methane and ethane clouds found before in a lower part of the atmosphere by both ground-based observers and in images taken by Cassini’s imaging science subsystem and visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, these clouds are much thinner and located higher in the atmosphere.
“They are very tenuous and very easy to miss,” says Anderson, the paper’s lead author. “The only earlier hints that they existed were faint glimpses that NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft caught as it flew by Titan in 1980.”