The Webb telescope tracks clouds beneath the nebula of Saturn’s moon Titan

The Webb telescope tracks clouds beneath the nebula of Saturn's moon Titan
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The James Webb Space Telescope observed clouds on one of the most interesting moons of the Solar System.

In November, the space observatory turned its infrared gaze to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. It is the only planet in our solar system with a dense atmosphere – four times denser than Earth.

Titan’s atmosphere is composed of nitrogen and methane, which gives it a fuzzy, orange appearance. This thick haze blocks visible light from reflecting off the moon’s surface, making it difficult to distinguish features.

The Webb telescope observes the universe in infrared light invisible to the human eye — on November 5, the telescope spotted a bright cloud in Titan’s northern hemisphere, and soon after discovered a second cloud in the atmosphere.

The larger cloud was located in Titan’s north polar region, near Kraken Mare, the largest known sea of ​​liquid methane on the moon’s surface.

Titan has Earth-like liquid bodies on its surface, but its rivers, lakes, and seas are composed of liquid ethane and methane, which form clouds and rain from the sky. Researchers also believe that Titan has an internal liquid water ocean.

The Webb telescope's instruments captured these views of Titan.  Clouds and other features have been labeled, including a sea of ​​methane called Kraken Mare, the sand dunes of Belet and a bright spot called Adiri.

“The discovery of the clouds is exciting because it confirms long-standing predictions of computer models of Titan’s climate that clouds would form easily in the mid-northern hemisphere during summer, when the surface is warmed by the Sun,” planetary scientist Conor Nixon wrote. Scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland NASA’s Webb blog.

Nixon is also the lead investigator In the Webb observing program for Titan.

A team of astronomers studying Webb’s observations contacted colleagues at the WM Keck Observatory. To see if follow-up observations in Hawaii could detect clouds moving or changing shape.

“When we looked at Titan with Keck two days later, we were concerned that the clouds would disappear, but to our delight there were clouds in the same positions that appeared to have changed shape,” Imke de Pater, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley and leader of the Keck Titan Observatory Group, said in a statement.

Astronomers compared Webb (left) and Keck images of Titan to see how the clouds developed.  Cloud A rotates and Cloud B dissipates.

Atmospheric modeling experts helped the team determine that two telescopes were capturing observations of seasonal weather patterns on Titan.

Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph was able to gather information about Titan’s lower atmosphere, which cannot be seen by ground-based observatories. such as Keck due to interference from the Earth’s atmosphere at different wavelengths of infrared light.

The data, which is still being analyzed, was able to see deeper into Titan’s atmosphere and surface than the Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn and its moons for 13 years. Webb’s observations may also reveal the cause of the bright feature over Titan’s south pole.

Cloud observations were for a long time.

“We’ve been waiting for years to use Webb’s infrared vision to get through the haze to study Titan’s atmosphere, including its fascinating weather patterns and gas composition, as well as surface albedo features,” Nixon said, referring to the bright and dark spots. .

“Titan’s atmosphere is incredibly interesting, not only because of its methane clouds and storms, but also because of what it can tell us about Titan’s past and future. We are very pleased with the preliminary results.”

The team plans to make more observations of Titan in June, which could provide additional information about the gases in its atmosphere.

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