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The James Webb Space Telescope has spotted clouds on one of the solar system’s most intriguing moons.
In November, the space observatory trained its infrared gaze on 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 fuzzy, 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 detected a second cloud in the atmosphere.
The largest cloud was located above 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 up 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 cloud detection is exciting because it validates long-standing computer model predictions of Titan’s climate that clouds would readily form in the mid-northern hemisphere in late summer when the surface is warmed by the Sun,” Conor Nixon, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, co-wrote on NASA’s Webb blog.
Nixon is also the lead researcher on the Webb observing program for Titan.
The team of astronomers studying Webb’s observations contacted colleagues at the WM Keck Observatory in Hawaii to see if follow-up observations could reveal whether the clouds were moving or changing shape.
“We were worried that the clouds were disappearing when we looked at Titan two days later with Keck, but to our delight there were clouds at the same positions, appearing to have changed shape,” Imke said. de Pater, professor emeritus of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley and leader of the Keck Titan observation team, in a statement.
Atmospheric modeling experts 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. like Keck due to interference from Earth’s atmosphere, in different wavelengths of infrared light.
The data, which is still being analyzed, allowed a deeper look 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 above Titan’s south pole.
Cloud sightings were slow in coming.
“We had waited years to use Webb’s infrared vision to study Titan’s atmosphere, including its fascinating weather patterns and gaseous composition, and also see through haze to study surface albedo characteristics” , 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 if it still had an atmosphere.We were absolutely thrilled with the initial results.
The team anticipates further observations of Titan in June that could provide additional information about the gases in its atmosphere.
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