Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Webb stuns scientists with new view of Saturn’s moon Titan

Saturn’s Moon Titan is very similar to Earth in many ways while also being very different. It has rivers, lakes and seas just like the Earth but the liquid filling these bodies is composed of hydrocarbons including methane and ethane, not water. After waiting for years, scientists have finally gained access to the James Webb Space Telescope’s views of this peculiar moon.

Titan is the only moon in the solar system with a dense atmosphere. According to NASA, its scientists have been waiting for years to use Webb’s infrared cameras to study Titan’s atmosphere to get to know more about its weather patterns and gaseous composition.

The scientists compared different images captured by the telescope’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) instrument and confirmed that a bright spot in Titan’s northern hemisphere is actually a large cloud. They detected a second cloud not long after. Detecting clouds helps validate computer models of Titan’s climate.

Next, the scientists wanted to understand whether the clouds were moving or changing shape, as this might reveal important information about the flow of air in Titan’s atmosphere. To do this, the team requested follow-up observations with the Keck Observatory in Hawai’i. The scientists were concerned that the clouds might disappear by the time they got the follow-up observations but they found clouds in the same locations, with different shapes.

The researchers have also collected Tian’s spectra using Webb’s NIRSpec (Near-Infrared Spectrograph), which gives them access to many wavelengths which cannot be detected by ground-based telescopes. Analysing this data will give them insights into the composition of Titan’s lowest atmosphere and learn about a bright feature they have seen over the south pole of the moon.

NASA plans to land its Dragonfly rotorcraft in the Selk Crater region of Titan in the year 2034. NASA teams were able to characterise this region by analysing radar images of the area taken by the Cassini spacecraft. But according to NASA, NIRSpec data will allow scientists to probe the composition of Titan’s surface and lower atmosphere in ways that even Cassini could not.


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