NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has discovered a huge cloud of ice or frozen compounds on Saturn’s moon, Titan, around the southern pole of the object. This growing cloud is detected at the mid-stratosphere, the stable atmospheric region above the troposphere or active weather layer of the body.
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At an altitude of nearly 186 miles or 300 kilometers, Cassini’s camera captured the huge cloud hovering over the southern region of Titan, but it was eventually found in 2012 to be not much, but now a larger ice cloud is observed lower in the stratosphere at an altitude of about 124 miles or 200 kilometers.
Deploying its Composite Infrared Spectrometer or CIRS, Cassini’s infrared instrument monitors the body’s atmosphere at thermal wavelengths which is invisible to see. Considering its low density, the cloud of the object is just like fog on Earth, NASA reported.
Cassini has been able to witness the transition of fall to winter at the south pole of Titan over the years, and it is the first spacecraft to witness the starting of winter on Titan. Since each season on Titan averages 7 ½ years of that of Earth’s, it is highly likely that the south pole will be covered in winter by the time the Cassini completes its mission 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.” He presented the report at the annual Meeting of the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society at National Harbor, Maryland, on Nov. 11.
The composition of the polar ice cloud, together with its altitude and size will enable scientists to analyze the severity and nature of winter on Titan. But relying on Cassini’s camera, scientists imagine temperature at the south pole could be as down as -238 degrees Fahrenheit or -150 degrees Celsius.
This ice particles is composed of hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen among other compounds; and it tends to form in the colder regions of the lower stratosphere.
“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.”
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NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Italian Space Agency partnered together to manage the Cassini-Huygens mission. JPL manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The CIRS team is based at Goddard.