It was a cloudy day on Titan.
It was clear on the morning of November 5th when Sebastien Rodriguez, an astronomer at City University Paris, downloaded the first images of Saturn’s largest moon with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. He saw what looked like a large 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 think we see a cloud!”
It causes some sort of weather emergency among the Rockers of the universe, causing them to seek more cover.
Titan has long been a gem of curiosity for astronomers. Less than half the size of Earth, it has its own atmosphere dense 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 filled with liquid methane and ethane. Beneath the frozen, sludge-like crust, an ocean of water and ammonia lurks.
Would-be astrobiologists have long wondered whether the chemistry that prevailed during Earth’s early years might have been recreated in Titan’s sandheaps. Possible precursors to life make the world of smog (where the surface temperature is minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit) a long-term hope for the discovery of space chemistry.
To that end, missions to Titan are being planned, including sending a nuclear-powered drone called Dragonfly to hop around Saturn’s moon by 2034 as well as more theoretical flights such as sending a submarine to explore its oceans.
Meanwhile, despite observations by Voyager 1 in 1980 and the Cassini orbiter of Saturn and its Huygens probe in 2004-2005, planetary scientists’ models of the dynamics of Titan’s atmosphere were still tentative. But the Webb telescope, launched nearly a year ago, has infrared eyes that can see through Titan’s haze.
So when Connor Nixon of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center got an email from Rodriquez, he was excited.
“We’ve waited for years to use Webb’s infrared vision to study Titan’s atmosphere,” Nixon said. “Titan’s atmosphere is incredibly interesting, not only because of its methane clouds and storms but also because of what it can tell us about Titan’s past and future, including whether it has ever had an atmosphere.”
Nixon on the same day reached out to two astronomers — Emke de Pater at the University of California, Berkeley, and Catherine de Claire at Caltech — who were affiliated with the twin 10-meter Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea in Hawaii and have called themselves Cake Titan Team. He requested immediate follow-up observations to see if the clouds were changing and in which direction the wind was blowing.
As de Pater showed, such last-minute requests are not always possible, because telescope time is a precious commodity.
“We were very lucky,” she said.
The observer on duty that night, Carl Schmidt of Boston University, was one of their collaborators on other planetary studies.
De Pater added that the Keck team is also keen to support Webb’s observations.
“They love the solar system bodies,” she said, “as they are ordered and always changing over time.”
Using visible-light images from Keck and infrared images from the Webb telescope, Nixon and his colleagues were able to probe Titan from features on Earth through the various layers of its atmosphere—everything a long-range weather forecaster might need.
And more on the way.
In an email, Nixon said his team was particularly excited to see what will happen in 2025, when Titan reaches the northern autumnal equinox.
“Shortly after the last equinox, we saw a giant storm on Titan, so we’re excited to see if the same thing happens again,” he said.
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