Research, Technology

Secrets of Titan: James Webb saw the atmosphere of Saturn's moon

In 1655 the Dutch astronomer Christian Huygensdiscovered an unusual celestial body near Saturn - one of the 82 moons of the gas giant. Titan, the second largest satellite in the solar system, is second in size only to Jupiter's moon Ganymede and, unlike other rocky worlds in our star system (with the exception of Earth), boasts an active fluid cycle. In this distant strange world, there are rivers, lakes and seas filled with liquid methane, and the land is made up of water ice. The dense atmosphere surrounding Titan is dotted with clouds of methane, and the temperature on the moon's surface averages -179 degrees Celsius. Scientists believe that Titan's atmosphere may be similar to Earth's early atmosphere. By studying Titan, researchers hope to find clues about how the young Earth evolved into a planet where life could begin. Recently, the James Webb Space Telescope turned its gaze to the mysterious moon of Saturn, peering through the dense, rich in methane and nitrogen atmosphere of this world.

The main difference between Earth and Titan is that Titan's seas are made up of methane and ethane rather than water.

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From orbit, Titan appears unattractive and larger.resembles Saturn, not the rocky world it really is. This pearl of our star system has long attracted the attention of astronomers. The huge distance from the Sun, combined with a diffuse, foggy atmosphere, means that a person on Titan would have a hard time - solar radiation practically does not heat the moon, which is why chemical reactions on it proceed much more slowly than on Earth.

Titan is the only moon in the solar system with a dense atmosphere.

For scientists, Titan is like a journey into the past.our home planet, which can give an idea of ​​the primitive atmosphere of the Earth. This is because the moon of Saturn is literally flooded with hydrocarbons, which form the building blocks of amino acids and proteins necessary for life.

See also: What organisms can live on Titan, Saturn's moon?

It is also important that Titan and the Earth -the only bodies in the solar system whose atmosphere is composed mostly of nitrogen. At the same time, titanium has clouds, rivers and oceans, which instead of water consist of ethane (C2H6) and methane (CH4).

Since the surface of this satellite is muchcolder than the coldest points on the earth's surface, methane and ethane evaporate from lakes and rivers into the atmosphere, where they condense into liquid and fall back as rain, creating rivers that flow into the lakes of this strange world. And although the Voyager spacecraft were unable to peer through the thick atmosphere of this moon, they showed that Titan is one of the most interesting places in the solar system, and the source of hazy methane clouds is still a mystery.

Basically, the atmosphere of Titan consists of molecular nitrogen (98.4%) and methane (1.6%),

The atmosphere on Titan and its climate are practicallycompletely repeat earthly. As astronomers have found, methane showers and storms shape the surface of Titan in the same way that water on Earth shapes a rocky surface. Moreover, this moon has seasons - each season lasts approximately 7.5 Earth years, and Saturn makes a complete revolution around the Sun once every three decades.

This is interesting: Saturn is losing Titan - its largest satellite

Clouds in Titan's atmosphere

After analyzing tens of thousands of imagesOn the surface of Titan, taken by the Cassini spacecraft, the researchers suggested that the clouds could form from underground reservoirs of methane - the so-called "ice volcanoes". However, after studying half of the surface of the satellite, scientists came to the conclusion that there is no volcanic activity on Titan: “Each time we make discoveries on Titan, it becomes more and more mysterious,” astronomers say.

Recall that NASA's Cassini mission studied Saturnover the course of 13 years, making a total of 127 flybys of Titan at various distances and "examining" the surface with an infrared camera. The mission culminated in the descent of the European Space Agency's Huygens probe through Titan's atmosphere, landing on its surface on January 14, 2005.

Thanks to previous observations, including the Cassini mission, the researchers suggested that there are clouds in the atmosphere of Titan (and they were not mistaken)

The data sent to Earth by Huygenshave shown that under the surface of Titan there is an ocean of salty liquid water, and therefore conditions favorable for microbial life, the official website of the space agency says.

Since the atmosphere of Titan is a kindlaboratory for the study of organic chemistry, astronomers suggest that it may contain "biologically interesting" compounds. But despite the long history of studying this cold world, there is still little knowledge about the processes that govern Titan's atmosphere. This is because it is permeated with a dense photochemical haze that scatters light and only the latest James Webb space telescope could look inside.

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New pictures of Titan

Webb's infrared "vision" is the bestallows you to study the atmosphere of Titan, its weather conditions and composition. A few months after the launch of the observatory, Webb began full-time work, providing images not only of the most distant objects in the observable universe, but also of our solar system. So, having received the first pictures of Titan, scientists examined large clouds on each side of Saturn's moon.

Images of Titan by the James Telescope's NIRCam cameraWebb in different colors from November 4, 2022. On the left is a 2.12 micron filter for the lower atmosphere. On the right is a composite image of four infrared filters. Photo: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI.

These pictures, among other things, marka breathtaking moment in studying the weather on other planets, providing useful information for NASA's planned Dragonfly mission, the main task of which is the search for life on Titan. The findings are intended to help scientists map the chemical compounds in Titan's lower atmosphere, including the bright spot above the moon's south pole.

It is interesting
Despite their similarities, Earth and Titanfollowed different evolutionary paths, obtaining unique atmospheres and surfaces rich in organic matter. For this reason, a number of researchers call this moon "an abnormal version of the Earth."

According to a recent statement from the spaceagency, in May 2023, Webb will turn his "eye" on Titan using the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), an infrared-band instrument for studying complex gas molecules in the atmosphere. With its help, scientists will come closer to understanding the chemical composition of the foggy atmosphere. Observations of Titan are especially important during the lull between exploration missions, and Webb's data allows Saturn's moon to be studied from 20 different vantage points.

Photos of Titan taken by the NIRCam instrument.

Read also: Everything you wanted to know about Titan's methane lakes, but hesitated to ask

And although we are talking about the presence (or absence) of life onTitan isn't on yet, and we'll learn a lot about this icy moon in the future thanks to Dragonfly's planned launch before the end of the decade. After the new robotic vehicle reaches its destination and descends to the surface of the moon, it will begin to study both the surface and atmosphere of Titan in detail in search of life beyond Earth. This fascinating journey will take at least seven years, but we are sure that the wait will be worth it. For more information about what the new NASA mission will be, we told earlier, do not miss it!