Saturn's moon Titan shows surprising seasonal changes

Oct 01, 2012
This real photograph of Titan shows two thin haze layers, now known to change with the seasons. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cassini

(Phys.org)—Detailed observations of Saturn's moon Titan have now spanned 30 years, covering an entire solar orbit for this distant world. Dr Athena Coustenis from the Paris-Meudon Observatory in France has analysed data gathered over this time and has found that the changing seasons of Titan affect it more than previously thought. Dr Coustenis presented these results at the European Planetary Science Congress in Madrid on Friday 28th September.

Explains Dr Coustenis, "As with Earth, conditions on Titan change with its seasons. We can see differences in atmospheric temperatures, and circulation patterns, especially at the poles. For example, hydrocarbon lakes form around the north polar region during winter due to colder temperatures and condensation. Also, a haze layer surrounding Titan at the northern pole is significantly reduced during the equinox because of the . This is all very surprising because we didn't expect to find any such rapid changes, especially in the deeper layers of the atmosphere."

The main cause of these cycles is . This is the dominant energy source for Titan's atmosphere, breaking up the nitrogen and methane present to create more complex molecules, such as ethane, and acting as the driving force for chemical changes. Titan is inclined at around 27 degrees, similar to the Earth, meaning that the cause of seasons – sunlight reaching different areas with varying intensity due to the tilt – is the same for both worlds. Says Dr Coustenis, "It's amazing to think that the Sun still dominates over other energy sources even as far out as Titan, over 1.5 billion kilometres from us."

Different missions have gathered data on Titan over a full course of its seasons. Credit: Ralph Lorenz

To draw these conclusions data was analysed from several different missions, including (1980), the (1997), and Cassini (2004 onwards), complemented by ground-based observations. Each season on Titan spans around 7.5 years, while it takes 29.5 years for Saturn to orbit the Sun, so data has now been gathered for an entire Titan year, encapsulating all seasons.

Dr Coustenis explains why it is important to investigate this distant moon: "Titan is the best opportunity we have to study conditions very similar to our own planet in terms of climate, meteorology and astrobiology and at the same time a unique world on its own, a paradise for exploring new geological, atmospheric and internal processes."

Explore further: Bright points in Sun's atmosphere mark patterns deep in its interior

Related Stories

Cassini gazes at veiled Titan

Sep 23, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- NASA's Cassini spacecraft will swing high over Saturn's moon Titan on Friday, Sept. 24, taking a long, sustained look at the hazy moon. At closest approach, Cassini will fly within 8,175 kilometers ...

South polar region of Titan, Saturn's largest moon

Dec 29, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- This view from NASA's Cassini spacecraft looks toward the south polar region of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, and shows a depression within the moon's orange and blue haze layers near the ...

The Titanian seasons turn, turn, turn

Jul 11, 2012

(Phys.org) -- Images from NASA's Cassini spacecraft show a concentration of high-altitude haze and a vortex materializing at the south pole of Saturn's moon Titan, signs that the seasons are turning on Saturn's ...

Evaluating the energy balance of Saturn's moon Titan

Jan 02, 2012

To understand the weather and climate on Earth as well as on other planets and their moons, scientists need to know the global energy balance, the balance between energy coming in from solar radiation and thermal energy radiated ...

Space Image: Rings, Titan and Enceladus

Apr 19, 2012

Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus hangs below the gas giant’s rings while Titan lurks in the background, in this new image taken by the Cassini spacecraft.   Faint detail of the tiger stripe mark ...

Recommended for you

Astronauts to reveal sobering data on asteroid impacts

11 hours ago

This Earth Day, Tuesday, April 22, three former NASA astronauts will present new evidence that our planet has experienced many more large-scale asteroid impacts over the past decade than previously thought… ...

Rosetta instrument commissioning continues

12 hours ago

We're now in week four of six dedicated to commissioning Rosetta's science instruments after the long hibernation period, with the majority now having completed at least a first initial switch on.

Astronaut salary

12 hours ago

Talk about a high-flying career! Being a government astronaut means you have the chance to go into space and take part in some neat projects—such as going on spacewalks, moving robotic arms and doing science ...

Red moon at night; stargazer's delight

Apr 16, 2014

Monday night's lunar eclipse proved just as delightful as expected to those able to view it. On the East Coast, cloudy skies may have gotten in the way, but at the National Science Foundation's National Optical ...

User comments : 4

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Anda
5 / 5 (2) Oct 01, 2012
I don't know why this is "surprising" or unexpected.
Anyway improvement on our knowledge about Titan is always welcome.
Meyer
3.5 / 5 (2) Oct 01, 2012
I don't know why this is "surprising" or unexpected.

It's slightly surprising, or at least interesting, that the tilt leads to seasons that far from the Sun.
Sinister1811
1 / 5 (4) Oct 02, 2012
I believe that if there's truly one place in our solar system that could demonstrate its potential for life (as we don't know it), it would be Titan.
Lex Talonis
1 / 5 (5) Oct 02, 2012
Jesus could take a holiday cruise - before he returns and kills you all.

More news stories

Cosmologists weigh cosmic filaments and voids

(Phys.org) —Cosmologists have established that much of the stuff of the universe is made of dark matter, a mysterious, invisible substance that can't be directly detected but which exerts a gravitational ...

Hubble image: A cross-section of the universe

An image of a galaxy cluster taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope gives a remarkable cross-section of the Universe, showing objects at different distances and stages in cosmic history. They range ...

Hackathon team's GoogolPlex gives Siri extra powers

(Phys.org) —Four freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania have taken Apple's personal assistant Siri to behave as a graduate-level executive assistant which, when asked, is capable of adjusting the temperature ...

Better thermal-imaging lens from waste sulfur

Sulfur left over from refining fossil fuels can be transformed into cheap, lightweight, plastic lenses for infrared devices, including night-vision goggles, a University of Arizona-led international team ...

Deadly human pathogen Cryptococcus fully sequenced

Within each strand of DNA lies the blueprint for building an organism, along with the keys to its evolution and survival. These genetic instructions can give valuable insight into why pathogens like Cryptococcus ne ...