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Webb Telescope Pictures of Titan Help Start an Alien Storm Forecast


It was a cloudy day on Titan.

That was clear on the morning of Nov. 5 when Sébastien Rodriguez, an astronomer on the Université Paris Cité, downloaded the primary images of Saturn’s biggest moon taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. He saw what looked like a big cloud near Kraken Mare, a 1,000-foot-deep sea in Titan’s north polar region.

“What a wake-up this morning,” he said in an email to his team, “I believe we’re seeing a cloud!”

And it triggered a type of a weather emergency among the many Al Rokers of the cosmos, sending them scrambling for more coverage.

Titan has long been a jewel of astronomers’ curiosities. Almost the dimensions of Earth, it has its own atmosphere that’s thick with methane and nitrogen — and even denser than the air we breathe. When it rains on Titan, it rains gasoline; when it snows, the drifts are black as coffee grounds. Its lakes and streams are stuffed with liquid methane and ethane. Beneath its frozen sludge-like crust lurks an ocean of water and ammonia.

Would-be astrobiologists have long wondered if the chemistry that prevailed through the early years of the Earth is being recreated within the slushy mounds of Titan. The potential precursors of life make the smoggy world (where the surface temperature is minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit), a long-shot hope for the invention of alien chemistry.

To that end, missions are being planned to Titan, including sending a nuclear-powered drone named Dragonfly to hop across the moon of Saturn by 2034 in addition to more notional voyages like sending a submarine to explore its oceans.

After traveling nearly a million miles to succeed in a location beyond the moon, the James Webb Space Telescope will spend years observing the cosmos.

Within the meantime, nonetheless, despite observations by Voyager 1 in 1980 and the Cassini Saturn orbiter and its Huygens lander in 2004-5, planetary scientists’ models of Titan’s atmospheric dynamics were still only tentative. However the Webb telescope, which launched almost a yr ago, has infrared eyes that may see through Titan’s haze.

So when Conor Nixon of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center got Dr. Rodriquez’s email, he was excited.

“We had waited for years to make use of Webb’s infrared vision to review Titan’s atmosphere,” said Dr. Nixon. “Titan’s atmosphere is incredibly interesting, not only attributable to its methane clouds and storms, but in addition due to what it could actually tell us about Titan’s past and future — including whether it all the time had an environment.”

Dr. Nixon reached out that very same day to a pair of astronomers — Imke de Pater on the University of California, Berkeley, and Katherine de Kleer on the California Institute of Technology — who were affiliated with the dual 10-meter Keck Telescopes on Mauna Kea in Hawaii and have called themselves the Keck Titan team. He requested immediate follow-up observations to see if the clouds were changing and which way the winds were blowing.

As Dr. de Pater explained, such last minute requests are usually not all the time possible, as telescope time is a precious commodity.

“We were extremely lucky,” she said.

The observer on duty that night, Carl Schmidt of Boston University, was a collaborator of theirs on other planetary studies.

The Keck staff, Dr. de Pater added, can also be desperate to support Webb telescope observations.

“They love the solar system objects,” she said, “since they are only neat, and all the time changing over time.”

With the visible light images from Keck and infrared pictures from the Webb telescope, Dr. Nixon and his colleagues were capable of probe Titan from features on the bottom through different layers of its atmosphere — all the things that a long-range weather forecaster might need.

And more is on the way in which.

In an email, Dr. Nixon said his team was particularly excited to see what would occur in 2025, when Titan would reach its northern autumnal equinox.

“Shortly after the last equinox, we saw a large storm on Titan, so we’re excited to see if the identical thing happens again,” he said

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