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NASA unveils images of clouds on Saturn’s moon Titan

The images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope give scientists a glimpse at the way clouds move on Saturn’s unique moon.

(CN) — NASA on Thursday released images from its initial study of Saturn’s moon Titan that show clouds underneath the celestial body’s thick atmosphere.

Using the Near-Infrared Camera, NIRCam, of the James Webb Space Telescope, scientists were able to study the atmosphere and weather patterns of Titan.

The images were captured by the NIRCam in early November and allowed scientists to spot two clouds that help validate previously held predictions made from computer models about the moon’s climate – specifically, that clouds would form in the moon’s mid-northern hemisphere during later periods of summer as the moon’s surface is warmed up by the sun.

Titan is very unique in that it is the only known planetary body besides Earth that has rivers, lakes and seas. Unlike the waterways of Earth, the liquid found on Titan’s surface is comprised of hydrocarbons like methane and ethane.

Scientists have waited years to study Titan’s atmosphere to gain an understanding about the moon’s weather patterns, and to examine the bright and dark patches that appear on its surface.

With the images in hand, scientists worked next to determine if the clouds on Titan were moving or changing, which could provide insight into the moon’s airflow.

To do this, they reached out to colleagues at the Keck Observatory in Hawai’i for follow-up observations using their telescope, which were done by probing Titan from its stratosphere to surface to find the same clouds spotted with the Webb telescope.

“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 from the University of California, Berkeley.

Evolution of clouds over a two-day period on Saturn's moon Titan. (Alyssa pagan/STScl)

Combining data from both the Webb telescope and the Keck telescope, atmospheric modeling experts looked to interpret the cloud data.

“I’m glad we’re seeing this, since we’ve been predicting a good bit of cloud activity for this season! We can’t be sure the clouds on Nov. 4 and 6 are the same clouds, but they are a confirmation of seasonal weather patterns,” said Luan Lora from Yale University in remarks released by NASA.

Besides the image data, scientists are also analyzing spectra information gathered by the Webb telescope’s spectrograph, which provides access to wavelengths that are blocked to ground-based telescopes.

Scientists hope that such data could help probe Titan’s lower atmosphere and surface in better ways than the Cassini Spacecraft, which orbited Saturn for over 13 years before its mission ended in 2017.

Next up for the Titan researchers is another wave of data that is expected in May or June 2023, which they hope will give them a better look at complex gases that make up the moon’s atmosphere, which is denser than any other moon in the solar system.

Maël Es-Sayeh, a graduate student at the Universite Paris Cité, is eagerly waiting the next parcels of data for use in his doctoral research.

“I will be using the data from Webb in my PhD research, so it’s very exciting to finally get the real data after years of simulations. I can’t wait to see what will come in part two next year!” Es-Sayeh said.

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