Clouds Discovered on Saturn's Moon Titan

National Geographic News
December 18, 2002

Methane clouds have been discovered near the south pole of Titan, resolving a fierce debate about whether clouds exist amid the haze of Saturn's moon's atmosphere.

Teams of astronomers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and at the University of California, Berkeley, observed the clouds through the W. M. Keck II 10-meter and the Gemini North 8-meter telescopes atop Hawaii's Mauna Kea volcano in December 2001. Both telescopes are outfitted with adaptive optics that provide unprecedented detail of features not seen even by the Voyager spacecraft during its flyby of Saturn and Titan.

The results are being published by the Caltech team in the December 19 issue of Nature and by the UC Berkeley and NASA Ames team in the December 20 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

Titan is Saturn's largest moon, larger than the planet Mercury, and is the only moon in our solar system with a thick atmosphere. Like Earth's atmosphere, the atmosphere on Titan is mostly nitrogen. Unlike Earth, Titan is inhospitable to life due to the lack of atmospheric oxygen and its extremely cold surface temperatures (-183 degrees Celsius, or -297 degrees Fahrenheit). Along with nitrogen, Titan's atmosphere contains a significant amount of methane.

Earlier spectroscopic observations hinted at the existence of clouds on Titan, but gave no clue as to their location. These early data were hotly debated, since Voyager spacecraft measurements of Titan appeared to show a calm and cloud-free atmosphere. Furthermore, previous images of Titan had failed to reveal clouds, finding only unchanging surface markings and very gradual seasonal changes in the haziness of the atmosphere.

Improvements in the resolution and sensitivity achievable with ground-based telescopes led to the present discovery. The observations used adaptive optics, in which a flexible mirror rapidly compensates for the distortions caused by turbulence in Earth's atmosphere. These distortions are what cause the well-known twinkling of the stars.

Using adaptive optics, details as small as 200 miles (300 kilometers) across can be distinguished at the enormous distance of Titan (800 million miles, or 1.3 billion kilometers), equivalent of reading an automobile license plate from 60 miles (100 kilometers) away.

The images presented by the two teams clearly show bright clouds near Titan's south pole.

"We see the intensity of the clouds varying over as little as a few hours," said post-doctoral fellow Henry Roe, lead author for the UC Berkeley group. "The clouds are constantly changing, although some persist for as long as a few days."

Titan experiences seasons much like Earth, though its year is 30 times longer due to Saturn's distant orbit from the sun. Titan is currently in the midst of southern summer, and the south pole has been in continuous sunlight for over six Earth years. The researchers believe that this fact may explain the location of the large clouds.

"These clouds appear to be similar to summer thunderstorms on Earth, but formed of methane rather than water. This is the first time we have found such a close analogy to the Earth's atmospheric water cycle in the solar system," said Antonin Bouchez, one of the Caltech researchers.

Continued on Next Page >>


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