Cassini sees Titan cooking up smog

February 5, 2013 by Jia-Rui C. Cook
Reflection of Sunlight off Titan Lake. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/DLR

(—A paper published this week using data from NASA's Cassini mission describes in more detail than ever before how aerosols in the highest part of the atmosphere are kick-started at Saturn's moon Titan. Scientists want to understand aerosol formation at Titan because it could help predict the behavior of smoggy aerosol layers on Earth.

According to the new paper, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Titan's trademark reddish-brown smog appears to begin with solar radiation on molecules of nitrogen and methane in the ionosphere, which creates a soup of negative and positive ions. Collisions among the organic molecules and the ions help the molecules grow into bigger and more complex aerosols. Lower down in the atmosphere, these aerosols bump into each other and coagulate, and at the same time interact with other, neutral particles. Eventually, they form the heart of the physical processes that rain hydrocarbons on Titan's surface and form lakes, channels and dunes.

The paper was led by Panayotis Lavvas, a Cassini participating scientist based at the University of Reims, Champagne-Ardenne, France. The team analyzed data from three Cassini instruments—the plasma spectrometer, the ion and neutral mass spectrometer, and the radio and science experiment. They compared their results to those obtained by ESA's on its descent through the Titan atmosphere in 2005 and found they were compatible.

Explore further: Cassini Returns to Southern Hemisphere of Titan

Related Stories

Cassini Returns to Southern Hemisphere of Titan

January 12, 2010

( -- NASA'S Cassini spacecraft will return to Titan's southern hemisphere on a flyby tomorrow, Jan. 12, plunging to within about 1,050 kilometers (about 670 miles) of the hazy moon's surface.

Lake detected near equator of Saturn's moon Titan

June 13, 2012

( -- NASA's Cassini spacecraft has spied long-standing methane lakes, or puddles, in the "tropics" of Saturn's moon Titan. One of the tropical lakes appears to be about half the size of Utah's Great Salt Lake, with ...

The Titanian seasons turn, turn, turn

July 11, 2012

( -- 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 largest moon. ...

Titan shines in latest Cassini shots

December 3, 2012

Last Thursday, November 29, Cassini sailed past Titan for yet another close encounter, coming within 1,014 kilometers (603 miles) of the cloud-covered moon in order to investigate its thick, complex atmosphere. Cassini's ...

Cassini spots mini Nile River on Saturn moon Titan

December 12, 2012

(—The international Cassini mission has spotted what appears to be a miniature extraterrestrial version of the Nile River: a river valley on Saturn's moon Titan that stretches more than 400 km from its 'headwaters' ...

Recommended for you

How to prepare for Mars? NASA consults Navy sub force

October 5, 2015

As NASA contemplates a manned voyage to Mars and the effects missions deeper into space could have on astronauts, it's tapping research from another outfit with experience sending people to the deep: the U.S. Navy submarine ...

Researchers find a new way to weigh a star

October 5, 2015

Researchers from the University of Southampton have developed a new method for measuring the mass of pulsars – highly magnetised rotating neutron stars formed from the remains of massive stars after they explode into supernovae.

Moon Express, Rocket Lab set for 2017 mission plan

October 5, 2015

In 2017 a private moon landing could make news. If the mission is successful, said GeekWire, Moon Express could become the first privately backed venture to achieve a soft lunar landing.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (8) Feb 05, 2013
So that's weird, plasma interactions drive the process. And by the description in the article, they need to find themselves someone who knows a bit about said interactions.
4 / 5 (2) Feb 05, 2013
If life could evolve on a hydrocarbon world like this.. say if it was closer to the sun, considering the atmosphere wouldn't develop an ozone layer, therefore continuously producing hydrocarbons, with oxygen naturally oxidizing into oxides, etc... would a plant like analogue even evolve on a world like this?
2.1 / 5 (7) Feb 05, 2013
It's possible there could still be methanogenic life on Titan. Scientists are still considering the possibility:
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 06, 2013
Read the book Titan by Stephen Baxter, it talks about life evolving on Titan after the sun expands. its a great read!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.