Now the unique results are helping to place the descent of Huygens in a global context, and to investigate the upper layers of Titan’s atmosphere.
This artist’s impression shows the ‘light curve’ produced by a star passing behind Titan, Saturn’s biggest moon. When such occultation events take place, the light from the star is blocked out. Because Titan has a thick atmosphere, the light does not ‘turn off’ straight away. Instead, it drops gradually as the blankets of atmosphere slide in front of the star, as the light-curve drawn here shows. The way the light drops tells astronomers about the atmosphere of Titan. The peak at the centre of the light curve represents the bright flash occurring at the very middle of the occultation. This is due to the fact that Titan’s atmosphere acts as a lens, making the light emitted by the star passing behind converge into a focal point and produce the flash.
Occasionally Titan passes directly in front of a distant star. When it does so, the light from the star is blocked out. Because Titan has a thick atmosphere, the light does not 'turn off' straight away. Instead, it drops gradually as the blankets of atmosphere slide in front of the star. The way the light drops tells astronomers about the atmosphere of Titan.
By pure chance on 14 November 2003, fourteen months before Huygens’ historic descent through Titan's atmosphere, Titan passed in front of two stars, just seven and a half hours apart. Bruno Sicardy, Observatoire de Paris, France, organised expeditions to record the occultations, as such events are called.
The first occultation was visible just after midnight from the Indian Ocean and the southern half of Africa. The second could be seen from Western Europe, the Atlantic Ocean, Northern and Central Americas. Teams of astronomers set up along the occultation tracks.
Sicardy was looking for one observation in particular. "Titan's atmosphere acts like a lens, so at the very middle of the occultation, a bright flash occurs," explains Sicardy. If Titan's atmosphere were a perfectly uniform layer, the central flash would be a pinprick of light, visible only at the very centre of the planet's shadow. However, comparing the results from many telescopes, Sicardy found that the central flash fell across the Earth in a triangular shape.
"It is like the light falling through a glass of water and making bright patterns on the table. The focused light is not perfectly round because the glass is not a perfect lens," says Sicardy. Analysing the shape of the flash showed that Titan’s atmosphere was flattened at the north pole. This was because at the time of the occultation, Titan's south pole was tilted towards the Sun. This warmed the atmosphere there, causing it to rise and move towards the north of the moon, where the atmosphere cooled and sank towards the surface.
There was one other key discovery that the occultation data allowed Sicardy and his team to make. A fast moving, high altitude wind (above 200 kilometres) was blowing around Titan at latitude of 50 degrees north. They estimated that it was moving at 200 metres per second (or 720 kilometres per hour) and would encircle the planet in less than one terrestrial day.
"It is like the jet stream on Earth," says Sicardy, "Furthermore, we told the Huygens team to expect some bumps near 510 kilometres altitude, due to a narrow and sudden temperature variation."
Indeed, Huygens was jolted by exactly such a layer during its 14 January 2005 entry. "A temperature inversion was indeed detected by the accelerometers during entry at this very altitude" says Jean-Pierre Lebreton, Huygens project scientist.
The work does not stop there. Even though the Huygens descent took place almost two years ago, the understanding of its data continues to provide key insights into Titan.
Jean-Pierre Lebreton | alfa
Astronomers find unexpected, dust-obscured star formation in distant galaxy
24.03.2017 | University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Gravitational wave kicks monster black hole out of galactic core
24.03.2017 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
Astronomers from Bonn and Tautenburg in Thuringia (Germany) used the 100-m radio telescope at Effelsberg to observe several galaxy clusters. At the edges of these large accumulations of dark matter, stellar systems (galaxies), hot gas, and charged particles, they found magnetic fields that are exceptionally ordered over distances of many million light years. This makes them the most extended magnetic fields in the universe known so far.
The results will be published on March 22 in the journal „Astronomy & Astrophysics“.
Galaxy clusters are the largest gravitationally bound structures in the universe. With a typical extent of about 10 million light years, i.e. 100 times the...
Researchers at the Goethe University Frankfurt, together with partners from the University of Tübingen in Germany and Queen Mary University as well as Francis Crick Institute from London (UK) have developed a novel technology to decipher the secret ubiquitin code.
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Silicon nanosheets are thin, two-dimensional layers with exceptional optoelectronic properties very similar to those of graphene. Albeit, the nanosheets are less stable. Now researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have, for the first time ever, produced a composite material combining silicon nanosheets and a polymer that is both UV-resistant and easy to process. This brings the scientists a significant step closer to industrial applications like flexible displays and photosensors.
Silicon nanosheets are thin, two-dimensional layers with exceptional optoelectronic properties very similar to those of graphene. Albeit, the nanosheets are...
Enzymes behave differently in a test tube compared with the molecular scrum of a living cell. Chemists from the University of Basel have now been able to simulate these confined natural conditions in artificial vesicles for the first time. As reported in the academic journal Small, the results are offering better insight into the development of nanoreactors and artificial organelles.
Enzymes behave differently in a test tube compared with the molecular scrum of a living cell. Chemists from the University of Basel have now been able to...
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