Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Titanic Weather Forecasting: New Detailed VLT Images of the Largest Moon in the Solar System

01.04.2004


Optimizing space missions



Titan, the largest moon of Saturn was discovered by Dutch astronomer Christian Huygens in 1655 and certainly deserves its name. With a diameter of no less than 5,150 km, it is larger than Mercury and twice as large as Pluto. It is unique in having a hazy atmosphere of nitrogen, methane and oily hydrocarbons. Although it was explored in some detail by the NASA Voyager missions, many aspects of the atmosphere and surface still remain unknown. Thus, the existence of seasonal or diurnal phenomena, the presence of clouds, the surface composition and topography are still under debate. There have even been speculations that some kind of primitive life (now possibly extinct) may be found on Titan.

Titan is the main target of the NASA/ESA Cassini/Huygens mission, launched in 1997 and scheduled to arrive at Saturn on July 1, 2004. The ESA Huygens probe is designed to enter the atmosphere of Titan, and to descend by parachute to the surface.


Ground-based observations are essential to optimize the return of this space mission, because they will complement the information gained from space and add confidence to the interpretation of the data. Hence, the advent of the adaptive optics system NAOS-CONICA (NACO)[1]in combination with ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile now offers a unique opportunity to study the resolved disc of Titan with high sensitivity and increased spatial resolution.

Adaptive Optics (AO) systems work by means of a computer-controlled deformable mirror that counteracts the image distortion induced by atmospheric turbulence. It is based on real-time optical corrections computed from image data obtained by a special camera at very high speed, many hundreds of times each second.

The southern smile

A team of French astronomers [2] have recently used the NACO state-of-the-art adaptive optics system on the fourth 8.2-m VLT unit telescope, Yepun, to map the surface of Titan by means of near-infrared images and to search for changes in the dense atmosphere.

These extraordinary images have a nominal resolution of 1/30th arcsec and show details of the order of 200 km on the surface of Titan. To provide the best possible views, the raw data from the instrument were subjected to deconvolution (image sharpening).

Images of Titan were obtained through 9 narrow-band filters, sampling near-infrared wavelengths with large variations in methane opacity. This permits sounding of different altitudes ranging from the stratosphere to the surface.

Titan harbours at 1.24 and 2.12 microns a “southern smile”, that is a north-south asymmetry, while the opposite situation is observed with filters probing higher altitudes, such as 1.64, 1.75 and 2.17 microns.

A high-contrast bright feature is observed at the South Pole and is apparently caused by a phenomenon in the atmosphere, at an altitude below 140 km or so. This feature was found to change its location on the images from one side of the south polar axis to the other during the week of observations.

Outlook

An additional series of NACO observations of Titan is foreseen later this month (April 2004). These will be a great asset in helping optimize the return of the Cassini/Huygens mission. Several of the instruments aboard the spacecraft depend on such ground-based data to better infer the properties of Titan’s surface and lower atmosphere.

Although the astronomers have yet to model and interpret the physical and geophysical phenomena now observed and to produce a full cartography of the surface, this first analysis provides a clear demonstration of the marvellous capabilities of the NACO imaging system. More examples of the exciting science possible with this facility will be found in a series of five papers published today in the European research journal Astronomy & Astrophysics (Vol. 47, L1 to L24).

More information

The results presented here are based on an article published in Astronomy & Astrophysics (A&A 417, L21-24, 2004): “VLT/NACO adaptive optics imaging of Titan” by E. Gendron et al.
Images of Saturn taken with NACO can be found in ESO PR Photo 04a/02.

Notes

1 NACO is an abbreviation of NAOS/CONICA. The NAOS adaptive optics corrector was built, under an ESO contract, by Office National d’Etudes et de Recherches Aérospatiales (ONERA), Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Grenoble (LAOG) and the LESIA and GEPI laboratories of the Observatoire de Paris in France, in collaboration with ESO. The CONICA infra-red camera was built, under an ESO contract, by the Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie (MPIA) (Heidelberg) and the Max-Planck Institut für Extraterrestrische Physik (MPE) (Garching) in Germany, in collaboration with ESO.

2 The team is composed of Eric Gendron, Athéna Coustenis, Pierre Drossart, Michel Combes, Mathieu Hirtzig, François Lacombe, Daniel Rouan, Claude Collin, and Sylvain Pau (LESIA, Observatoire de Paris, CNRS, France), Anne-Marie Lagrange, David Mouillet, Patrick Rabou (Laboratoire d’Astrophysique, Observatoire de Grenoble, France), Thierry Fusco (ONERA) and Gérard Zins (ESO).

Richard West | ESO
Further information:
http://www.eso.org/outreach/press-rel/pr-2004/phot-08-04.html

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Physicists discover that lithium oxide on tokamak walls can improve plasma performance
22.05.2017 | DOE/Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

nachricht Experts explain origins of topographic relief on Earth, Mars and Titan
22.05.2017 | City College of New York

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Wafer-thin Magnetic Materials Developed for Future Quantum Technologies

Two-dimensional magnetic structures are regarded as a promising material for new types of data storage, since the magnetic properties of individual molecular building blocks can be investigated and modified. For the first time, researchers have now produced a wafer-thin ferrimagnet, in which molecules with different magnetic centers arrange themselves on a gold surface to form a checkerboard pattern. Scientists at the Swiss Nanoscience Institute at the University of Basel and the Paul Scherrer Institute published their findings in the journal Nature Communications.

Ferrimagnets are composed of two centers which are magnetized at different strengths and point in opposing directions. Two-dimensional, quasi-flat ferrimagnets...

Im Focus: World's thinnest hologram paves path to new 3-D world

Nano-hologram paves way for integration of 3-D holography into everyday electronics

An Australian-Chinese research team has created the world's thinnest hologram, paving the way towards the integration of 3D holography into everyday...

Im Focus: Using graphene to create quantum bits

In the race to produce a quantum computer, a number of projects are seeking a way to create quantum bits -- or qubits -- that are stable, meaning they are not much affected by changes in their environment. This normally needs highly nonlinear non-dissipative elements capable of functioning at very low temperatures.

In pursuit of this goal, researchers at EPFL's Laboratory of Photonics and Quantum Measurements LPQM (STI/SB), have investigated a nonlinear graphene-based...

Im Focus: Bacteria harness the lotus effect to protect themselves

Biofilms: Researchers find the causes of water-repelling properties

Dental plaque and the viscous brown slime in drainpipes are two familiar examples of bacterial biofilms. Removing such bacterial depositions from surfaces is...

Im Focus: Hydrogen Bonds Directly Detected for the First Time

For the first time, scientists have succeeded in studying the strength of hydrogen bonds in a single molecule using an atomic force microscope. Researchers from the University of Basel’s Swiss Nanoscience Institute network have reported the results in the journal Science Advances.

Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe and is an integral part of almost all organic compounds. Molecules and sections of macromolecules are...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Dortmund MST Conference presents Individualized Healthcare Solutions with micro and nanotechnology

22.05.2017 | Event News

Innovation 4.0: Shaping a humane fourth industrial revolution

17.05.2017 | Event News

Media accreditation opens for historic year at European Health Forum Gastein

16.05.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

New approach to revolutionize the production of molecular hydrogen

22.05.2017 | Materials Sciences

Scientists enlist engineered protein to battle the MERS virus

22.05.2017 | Life Sciences

Experts explain origins of topographic relief on Earth, Mars and Titan

22.05.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>