The cloud may be the clue needed in solving a puzzle that has confounded scientists who so far have seen little evidence of a veil of ethane clouds and surface liquids originally thought extensive enough to cover the entire surface of Titan with a 300-meter-deep ocean.
Before the Cassini-Huygens mission began visiting Titan in 2004, "We expected to see lots of ethane -- vast ethane clouds at all latitudes and extensive seas on the surface of Saturn's giant moon Titan," University of Arizona planetary scientist Caitlin Griffith said.
That's because solar ultraviolet light irreversibly breaks down methane in Titan's mostly nitrogen atmosphere. Ethane is by far the most plentiful byproduct when methane breaks down. If methane has been a constituent of the atmosphere throughout Titan's 4.5-billion-year lifetime -- and there was no reason to suspect it had not -- the large moon would be awash with seas of ethane, scientists theorized.
NASA's Cassini spacecraft radar found lakes in Titan's north arctic latitudes on a flyby last July 22. However, "We now know that Titan's surface is largely devoid of lakes and oceans," Griffith said. She is a member of the UA-based Cassini VIMS team, headed by Professor Robert Brown of UA's Lunar and Planetary Lab.
The missing ethane is all the more mysterious because Cassini images suggest that other less abundant solid precipitates from the photochemical reactions in Titan's atmosphere have formed dunes and covered craters on its surface, Griffith said.
VIMS made the first detection of Titan's vast polar ethane cloud when it probed Titan's high northern latitudes on Cassini flybys in December 2004, August 2005, and September 2005.
VIMS detected the cirrus cloud as a bright band at altitudes from between 30 km and 60 km at the edge of Titan's arctic circle, between 51 degrees and 69 degrees north latitude. VIMS saw only part of the cloud because most of the northern polar region is in winter's shadow and won't be fully illuminated until 2010, Griffith noted.
"Our observations imply that surface deposits of ethane should be found specifically at the poles, rather than globally distributed across Titan's disk as previously assumed," Griffith said. "That may partially explain the lack of liquid ethane oceans and clouds at Titan's middle and lower latitudes."
"We think that ethane is raining or, if temperatures are cool enough, snowing on the north pole right now. When the seasons switch, we expect ethane to condense at the south pole during its winter," Griffith said. If polar conditions are as cool as predictions say, ethane could accumulate as polar ice.
Ethane dissolves in methane, which scientists predict is raining from the atmosphere at the north pole during its cool winter. "During the polar winters, we expect the lowlands to cradle methane lakes that are rich with ethane," Griffith noted. "Perhaps these are the lakes recently imaged by Cassini."
If ethane was produced at today's rate over Titan's entire lifetime, a total of two kilometers of ethane would have precipitated over the poles. But that seems unlikely, Griffith said.
Scientists have no direct evidence for polar caps of ethane ice. Titan's north pole is in winter darkness, and Cassini cameras have yet to see it in reflected light. Cassini cameras have imaged Titan's south pole. "The morphology seen in those images doesn't suggest a two kilometer polar ice cap, but the images do show flow features," Griffith said.
"We're going to start making more polar passes in the upcoming months," she added. "By the end of next year Cassini will have recorded the first polar temperature profile of Titan, which will tell us how cold conditions are at the pole."
Griffith is first author on the article, "Evidence for a Polar Ethane Cloud on Titan," published in the current (Sept.15) issue of Science. Paulo Pinteado and VIMS team leader Robert Brown of the UA and researchers from France, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., the U.S. Geological Survey, Cornell University, NASA Ames Research Center, Portugal and Germany are co-authors.
Griffith, Pinteado and Robert Kursinski of UA collaborated earlier in studies of the thousand-mile-long methane clouds that band Titan at southern latitudes. They concluded from analyzing VIMS images that these highly localized, convective clouds, which are composed of methane, result from summer heating much as thunderstorms form on Earth.
The VIMS instrument is an imaging spectrometer that produces a special data set called an image cube. It takes an image of an object in many colors simultaneously. An ordinary video camera takes images in three primary colors (red, green, and blue) and combines them to produce images as seen by the human eye. The VIMS instrument takes images in 352 separate wavelengths, or colors, spanning a realm of colors far beyond those visible to humans. All materials reflect light in a unique way. So molecules of any element or compound can be identified by the wavelengths they reflect or absorb, their "signature" spectra.
Caitlin Griffith | EurekAlert!
Study offers new theoretical approach to describing non-equilibrium phase transitions
27.04.2017 | DOE/Argonne National Laboratory
SwRI-led team discovers lull in Mars' giant impact history
26.04.2017 | Southwest Research Institute
More and more automobile companies are focusing on body parts made of carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP). However, manufacturing and repair costs must be further reduced in order to make CFRP more economical in use. Together with the Volkswagen AG and five other partners in the project HolQueSt 3D, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) has developed laser processes for the automatic trimming, drilling and repair of three-dimensional components.
Automated manufacturing processes are the basis for ultimately establishing the series production of CFRP components. In the project HolQueSt 3D, the LZH has...
Reflecting the structure of composites found in nature and the ancient world, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have synthesized thin carbon nanotube (CNT) textiles that exhibit both high electrical conductivity and a level of toughness that is about fifty times higher than copper films, currently used in electronics.
"The structural robustness of thin metal films has significant importance for the reliable operation of smart skin and flexible electronics including...
The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.
Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...
The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...
Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.
Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...
28.04.2017 | Event News
20.04.2017 | Event News
18.04.2017 | Event News
28.04.2017 | Medical Engineering
28.04.2017 | Earth Sciences
28.04.2017 | Life Sciences