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The James Webb Space Telescope has spotted clouds on one of the solar system’s most interesting moons.
In November, the space observatory directed its infrared gaze at Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. It is the only moon in our solar system with a dense atmosphere – four times the density of Earth’s.
Titan’s atmosphere is composed of nitrogen and methane, giving it a fuzzy orange appearance. This thick haze blocks visible light from reflecting off the lunar surface, making features difficult to distinguish.
The Webb telescope observes the universe in infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye — on November 5, the telescope spotted a bright cloud in Titan’s northern hemisphere, and soon after, detected a second cloud in the atmosphere.
The larger cloud was located over Titan’s north polar region near Kraken Mare, the largest known liquid sea of methane on the moon.
Titan has Earth-like liquid bodies on its surface, but its rivers, lakes, and seas are made of liquid ethane and methane, which form clouds and cause rain from the sky. Researchers also believe that Titan has an internal liquid ocean.
“The discovery of the clouds is exciting because it validates long-term predictions from computer models about Titan’s climate, which would easily form in the middle of the northern hemisphere during the late summer when the surface is warmed by the sun,” said a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. In Greenbelt, Maryland NASA Weblog.
Nixon is also the principal investigator In Webb’s Watch for Titan.
The team of astronomers studying Webb’s observations reached out to colleagues at the WM Keck Observatory in Hawaii to see if follow-up observations can reveal if clouds are moving or changing shape.
Emke de Pater, professor emeritus of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, and leader of the Kick-Titan observation team, said in a statement.
Atmospheric modeling experts helped the team determine that the two telescopes captured observations of seasonal weather patterns on Titan.
Webb’s Near Infrared Spectroradiometer instrument was also able to collect data on Titan’s lower atmosphere, which cannot be seen by ground-based observatories. Like Keck due to interference from Earth’s atmosphere, different wavelengths of infrared light.
The data, which is still being analyzed, was able to see deeper into Titan’s atmosphere and surface from the Cassini spacecraft, which has orbited Saturn and its moons for 13 years. Webb’s observations could also reveal the cause of a bright feature over Titan’s south pole.
Cloud observations have been coming for a long time.
“We’ve waited for years to use Webb’s infrared vision to study Titan’s atmosphere, including its fascinating weather patterns and gaseous composition, as well as see through the haze to study the albedo features on the surface,” Nixon said, referring to the bright and dark spots.
“Titan’s atmosphere is incredibly interesting, not only because of the methane clouds and storms, but also because of what it can tell us about Titan’s past and future — including whether it has always had an atmosphere. We were very pleased with the initial results.”
The team plans more observations of Titan in June that may provide additional information about the gases in its atmosphere.
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