Scientists discover signs of extraterrestrial summer storms on saturn’s moon

If the european probe huygens were to get caught in a rainstorm when it landed on saturn’s moon titan, it would be a cause for celebration for the scientists involved. They had then found rain above ground for the first time. The chances for this have increased: with ground-based observations, astronomers have already proven the existence of clouds in titan’s atmosphere.

Image taken with the keck telescope from titan. Image: brown et al.

Unlike on earth, however, these clouds do not consist of condensed water. It is much too cold for that with about minus 183 degrees celsius. What the research teams observed with the 10-meter keck ii telescope and the 8-meter gemini north telescope in hawaii are methane clouds that form at altitudes of about 15 kilometers above the south pole. From 3. December 2001 until 4. In march 2002, the scientists took pictures of titan during a total of five nights. This revealed changing patterns, some of which could be clearly identified as clouds.

"We can see how the intensity of the clouds changes within a few hours", says henry roe of the university of california at berkeley, whose team carried out the observations with the gemini telescope. "The clouds are in constant change, although some of them last up to several days."

Scientists explain the concentration of clouds at the south pole by the fact that it is currently summer there. For six years, titan’s southern hemisphere has been continuously illuminated by the sun, which obviously challenges atmospheric circulation. "These clouds seem to resemble our summer thunderstorms on earth, but made of methane instead of water", says antonin bouchez of the california institute of technology. His team worked with the keck telescope.

Image of titan’s south pole with cloud formations. Image: roe et. Al.

"It is the first time that we have found in the solar system such a clear analogy to the terrestrial water cycle."

The two teams, whose research results were published in the current ies of nature and the astrophysical journal, were able to identify the invisible enemy with the help of so-called "cogs" "adaptive optics" take the clearest pictures of the titan so far. This technique compensates for the turbulence in the earth’s atmosphere that causes image distortion by deforming the telescope’s mirrors.

Es wird angenommen, dass die atmosphare des titan in ihrer zusammensetzung der fruhen erdatmosphare ahnelt. Scientists therefore hope that a more detailed on-site investigation by the huygens probe will provide new insights into the origin of life on earth. On the other hand, the chances of finding living organisms there are considered low, given the extremely low temperatures.

However, many researchers are becoming more and more cautious with such predictions in the last years. For example, after simulation experiments at leiden university in the netherlands showed that complex organic chemical processes are possible even in interstellar space at temperatures just above absolute zero, the possibility of life on titan no longer seems so far-fetched. At least the celestial body itself has already become a bit more alive through the discovery of clouds.

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