It was a cloudy day on Titan.
In the morning of December 5, with Sébastien Rodriguez, an astronomer at the Université Paris Cité, it became clear that the first images of Saturn’s largest moon were taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. He saw what looked like a large cloud near the Kraken Sea, 1,000 feet high in the polar region of Titan in the north.
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“What I’m watching this morning,” he said in an email to his team. “I think we see a cloud!”
A sudden storm ignites the cosmos among the Al Rokers, sending them scrambling for more coverage.
Titan has long been a jewel of astronomers’ curiosities. Less than half the size of Earth, it has an atmosphere thick with methane and nitrogen, and is even denser than the air we breathe. When it rains on Titan, it rains gasoline; when it snows, the trails are as black as coffee grounds. Lakes and rivers are full of methane and ethane. A sludgelike layer of water and ammonia lurks beneath the icy crust.
Astrobiologists have long wondered if the chemistry that prevailed in the early years of the earth would be recreated in the hot mounds of Titan. Potential life precursors make the smoggy world (where the surface temperature is minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit) a long-shot hope of finding alien chemistry.
To this end, missions are being planned for Titan, including sending a nuclear-powered drone called Dragonfly to fly around Saturn’s moon by 2034, as well as sending more submarine-like navigation concepts to explore its oceans.
Meanwhile, however, despite the observations of Voyager 1 in 1980 and Cassini’s Saturn orbiter and its descent to Huguenot in 2004-5, the philosophers’ models of the dynamics of Titan’s planetary atmospheres were still only tentative. But the Webb telescope, which was launched nearly a year ago, has infrared eyes that can see through the cloaking Titans.
So when Conor Nixon of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center got the email, Rodriquez was excited.
“We’ve been waiting years for Webb’s infrared vision to probe Titan’s atmosphere,” Nixon said. “Titania’s atmosphere is incredibly interesting, not only because of its methane clouds and weather, but also because of what it can tell us about Titan’s past and future, including whether it ever had an atmosphere.”
On the same day, Nixon reached out to two astronomers — Imke de Pater at the University of California, Berkeley, and Katherine de Kleer at the California Institute of Technology — who were attached to the twin 10-meter Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. the Kecka Titania team. He immediately demanded observations, whether the clouds were changing, and which way the winds were blowing.
As explained by Pater, the last minute requests are not always possible, as telescope time is a precious commodity.
“We’re very lucky,” he said.
The observer on the watch that night was Carl Schmidt of Boston University, their supporter in other planetary studies.
Keck’s staff, De Pater added, is also working to support Webb’s telescope observations.
“They love solar objects,” he says, “because they are beautiful, and always changing with time.”
With visible light images from Keck and infrared images from the Webb telescope, Nixon and his colleagues were able to study Titan’s features on the ground through the various layers of the atmosphere – all that could be needed for a long weather forecast.
And more is on the way.
In the address, Nixon said his team was most excited to see what would happen in 2025, when Titan reaches the northern autumnal equinox.
“Right after the last equinox we saw a huge storm on Titan, so we’re excited to see if the same thing happens again,” he said.
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