Sep 24, 2016 I Brett Tingley

Unexplained Ice Cloud Suddenly Appears Over Saturn’s Moon

Saturn’s moons are some of the most curious objects in our solar system. Saturn has sixty-two moons, ranging in size from tiny “moonlets” to the massive Titan, nearly half the size of Earth. Titan has been speculated to be a prime candidate for alien life given the moon's Earth-like atmosphere, weather, and the fact that liquid oceans and canyons dot the moon’s landscape. Due to these unique features, Titan has become an increasingly popular target of astronomical research, leading to more frequent discoveries made about Saturn’s largest moon.

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Artist rendering of Saturn setting over one of the methane seas of Titan.

This week, astronomers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) released data which shows a startling discovery which our current understanding of Titan cannot currently explain. According to a JPL press release, a cloud of ice has appeared on the surface of Saturn’s most curious moon and astronomers do not know what to make of it.

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A close-up of the strange ice cloud forming on Titan.

Clouds have been previously spotted in Titan’s stratosphere, after having formed at Titan’s poles due to regularly-occurring pressure and temperature circulation patterns. This new cloud, however, does not follow previously-recorded models of cloud formation. What’s more surprising is the fact that the cloud is made up of carbon subnitrate, also known by its chemical name, dicyanoacetylene (C4N2). Clouds of such molecules usually only form through a process known as solid-state photochemistry, in which reactions between photons from the Sun and organic compounds within ice can spontaneously create new compounds.

Size comparison of Titan, bottom right, Earth, and our Moon, top left.

Carrie Anderson, researcher at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and lead author of the publication which describes this finding, stated that this finding contradicts previous understanding of Titan’s atmosphere and adds to the theory that Titan might be more like Earth than we currently know:

The appearance of this ice cloud goes against everything we know about the way clouds form on Titan [...] It's very exciting to think that we may have found examples of similar solid-state chemical processes on both Titan and Earth.

As we learn more about this mysterious moon, it is looking more and more possible that Titan might support some form of alien life. NASA’s Cassini probe will continue to collect data about Saturn and her moons for several more years, fueling hopes that life elsewhere in the galaxy might finally be found.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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