However the most important raw ingredient in this chemical factory - methane gas, a molecule made up of one carbon atom joined to four hydrogen atoms – should not last for long because it's being continuously destroyed by sunlight and converted to more complex molecules and particles.
Titan's dense atmosphere shrouds the moon beneath a tan haze in this image. Saturn's third-largest moon Dione can be seen through the Titan haze in this view of the two posing before the planet and its rings from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. The rings, viewed nearly edge-on, appear as a horizontal line through the image. The rings cast shadows on Saturn, which appear as dark lines at the bottom of the image. The Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera made this image on May 21, 2011 at a distance of approximately 1.4 million miles (2.3 million kilometers) from Titan. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
New research from NASA-funded scientists attempts to estimate how long this factory has been operating. The results are presented as two papers appearing in the April 20 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.
These papers used data from two instruments onboard NASA's Cassini spacecraft in orbit around Saturn and one instrument on the European Space Agency's Huygens probe that landed on Titan’s surface in January, 2005. All three instruments were built at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. A paper led by Conor Nixon of the University of Maryland, College Park uses infrared signatures (spectra) of methane from Cassini's composite infrared spectrometer to estimate how much "heavy" methane containing rare isotopes is present in Titan's atmosphere.
Isotopes are versions of an element with different weights, or masses. For example, carbon 13 is a heavier (and rare) version of the most common type of carbon, called carbon 12. Occasionally, a carbon-13 atom replaces a carbon-12 atom in a methane molecule. Because methane made with carbon 12 is slightly lighter, the chemical reactions that convert it to more complex hydrocarbons happen a bit faster. This means carbon-12 methane gets used up at a slightly faster rate than heavy carbon-13 methane, so the concentration of heavy methane in Titan's atmosphere increases slowly.
By modeling how the concentration of heavy methane changes over time, the scientists predicted how long Titan's chemical factory has been running.
"Under our baseline model assumptions, the methane age is capped at 1.6 billion years, or about a third the age of Titan itself," said Nixon, who is stationed at NASA Goddard. "However, if methane is also allowed to escape from the top of the atmosphere, as some previous work has suggested, the age must be much shorter - perhaps only 10 million years - to be compatible with observations." Both of these scenarios assume that methane entered the atmosphere in one burst of outgassing, probably from the restructuring of Titan's interior as heavier materials sank towards the center and lighter ones rose toward the surface.
"However, if the methane has been continuously replenished from a source then its isotopes would always appear 'fresh' and we can't restrict the age in our model," adds Nixon. Possible sources include methane clathrates, basically a methane molecule inside a "cage" or lattice of ice molecules. Methane clathrates are found in the frigid depths of Earth's oceans, and some scientists think there could be an ocean of liquid water mixed with ammonia (acting as antifreeze) beneath Titan's water-ice crust. If this is so, methane might be released from its clathrate cages during the eruptions of proposed 'cryovolcanoes' of water-ammonia slurry, or more simply could slowly seep out through fractures in the crust.
The second paper by Kathleen Mandt of the Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio, Texas, and colleagues also models the time-evolution of methane. In this work, the concentration of the heavy methane is determined from measurements by Cassini's ion and neutral mass spectrometer, which counts molecules in the atmosphere of different masses (weights). Measurements made by the Huygens gas chromatograph mass spectrometer, which also counts molecules of different masses, were used to constrain the impact of escape on the heavy methane in the atmosphere.
"We compute that, even if methane has been replenished from the interior over time to match or exceed the amounts fed into the atmospheric chemical factory, the process must have been running for a maximum of one billion years," said Mandt. "If the process had started any earlier, we would see a build-up of methane in the lakes on the surface and in the atmosphere beyond what is observed today."
Together these papers add important new perspectives and constraints on the history of Titan's methane atmosphere, confirming that it must have formed long after Titan itself. Previous work considering the evolution of Titan's interior has predicted the last major methane eruption occurred 350 million to 1.35 billion years ago, while crater counting has put the age of the current surface at 200 million to one billion years. (Crater counting works on the principle that an older surface has more craters, just as the longer you're in a paintball game, the more hits you'll get.)
The present work for the first time estimates the methane age from the atmosphere itself, at less than one billion years, considering both papers.
This research was supported by the NASA Cassini Mission and the NASA Cassini Data Analysis Program grant NNX09AK55G. The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington.
All of Cassini's raw images can be seen at http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/photos/raw/ .
For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit http://www.nasa.gov/cassini and http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov .Bill Steigerwald
Bill Steigerwald | EurekAlert!
UNH scientists help provide first-ever views of elusive energy explosion
16.11.2018 | University of New Hampshire
NASA keeps watch over space explosions
16.11.2018 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
Researchers at the University of New Hampshire have captured a difficult-to-view singular event involving "magnetic reconnection"--the process by which sparse particles and energy around Earth collide producing a quick but mighty explosion--in the Earth's magnetotail, the magnetic environment that trails behind the planet.
Magnetic reconnection has remained a bit of a mystery to scientists. They know it exists and have documented the effects that the energy explosions can...
Biochips have been developed at TU Wien (Vienna), on which tissue can be produced and examined. This allows supplying the tissue with different substances in a very controlled way.
Cultivating human cells in the Petri dish is not a big challenge today. Producing artificial tissue, however, permeated by fine blood vessels, is a much more...
Faster and secure data communication: This is the goal of a new joint project involving physicists from the University of Würzburg. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research funds the project with 14.8 million euro.
In our digital world data security and secure communication are becoming more and more important. Quantum communication is a promising approach to achieve...
On Saturday, 10 November 2018, the research icebreaker Polarstern will leave its homeport of Bremerhaven, bound for Cape Town, South Africa.
When choosing materials to make something, trade-offs need to be made between a host of properties, such as thickness, stiffness and weight. Depending on the application in question, finding just the right balance is the difference between success and failure
Now, a team of Penn Engineers has demonstrated a new material they call "nanocardboard," an ultrathin equivalent of corrugated paper cardboard. A square...
09.11.2018 | Event News
06.11.2018 | Event News
23.10.2018 | Event News
16.11.2018 | Health and Medicine
16.11.2018 | Life Sciences
16.11.2018 | Life Sciences