The James Webb Space Telescope and the Keck Observatory in Hawaii have watched clouds changing shape in the sky of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, which could help us understand its weird atmosphere
1 December 2022
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii have taken images revealing clouds floating across the skies of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. These images will help researchers understand weather patterns on Titan, the only world other than Earth known to have liquid oceans on its surface.
The left image was taken by JWST on 4 November. Near the top of the image is Kraken Mare, Titan’s largest known sea, flanked by two fluffy white clouds. It is currently summertime in Titan’s northern hemisphere, the time when clouds were expected to form most easily because of the increased sunshine on the surface. These observations confirm the presence of those seasonal clouds.
In an effort to find out whether the clouds were moving or changing shape, the JWST team reached out to researchers at the Keck Observatory and asked them to take follow-up observations. The image from Keck, taken on 6 November, is on the right.
“We were concerned that the clouds would be gone when we looked at Titan two days later with Keck, but to our delight there were clouds at the same positions, looking like they had changed in shape,” said Imke de Pater at the University of California, Berkeley, in a statement.
Delving deeper into the data should help researchers understand air circulation on Titan, which is the only moon in the solar system with a thick atmosphere. Additional observations are expected to come down from JWST in mid-2023, which will include information on the composition of Titan’s atmosphere and surface, and could help scientists figure out why the moon’s south pole looks so bright in these images.
Titan’s thick atmosphere and liquid hydrocarbon rivers and seas make it a prime location to hunt for life, and these observations may unravel how it became so much more hospitable than the other moons in the solar system.
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