Science & Technology

NASA spacecraft detects ‘monster cloud’ near south pole of Saturn’s largest moon

Discovery adds evidence to fact that winter ‘comes in like a lion’ on this moon

 
By DTE Staff
Last Updated: Thursday 12 November 2015

NASA scientists have detected a monstrous new cloud of frozen compounds at the south pole of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan through the spacecraft, Cassini. The observations add to the evidence that winter comes in “like a lion” on this moon of Saturn, a press release by NASA noted.

The new cloud was detected by Cassini’s infrared instrument—the Composite Infrared Spectrometer, or CIRS—which obtains profiles of the atmosphere at invisible thermal wavelengths. The cloud has a low density, similar to Earth’s fog but likely flat on top.

For the past few years, Cassini has been catching glimpses of the transition from fall to winter at Titan’s south pole—the first time any spacecraft has seen the onset of a Titan winter. Because each Titan season lasts about 7-1/2 years on Earth’s calendar, the south pole will still be enveloped in winter when the Cassini mission ends in 2017.

“When we looked at the infrared data, this ice cloud stood out like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” said Carrie Anderson of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “It practically smacked us in the face.”

Cassini arrived at Saturn in 2004—mid-winter at Titan’s north pole. As the north pole has been transitioning into springtime, the ice clouds there have been disappearing. Meanwhile, new clouds have been forming at the south pole. The build-up of these southern clouds indicates that the direction of Titan’s global circulation is changing.

“Titan's seasonal changes continue to excite and surprise," said Scott Edgington, Cassini deputy project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. "Cassini, with its very capable suite of instruments, will continue to periodically study how changes occur on Titan until its Solstice mission ends in 2017.”

The size, altitude and composition of the polar ice clouds help scientists understand the nature and severity of Titan’s winter. From the ice cloud seen earlier by Cassini’s camera, scientists determined that temperatures at the south pole must get down to at least -238 degrees Fahrenheit (-150 degrees Celsius).

“The opportunity to see the early stages of winter on Titan is very exciting,” said Robert Samuelson, a Goddard researcher working with Anderson. “Everything we are finding at the south pole tells us that the onset of southern winter is much more severe than the late stages of Titan’s northern winter.”

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. JPL manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The CIRS team is based at Goddard.

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