Methane found on Saturn plays crucial role in planet formation

Dec 29, 2004
A natural color view of Saturn taken by the Cassini spacecraft on its approach to the planet
A natural color view of Saturn taken by the Cassini spacecraft on its approach to the planet

Using an infrared spectrometer on the Cassini-Huygens Spacecraft, researchers have measured the temperature, winds and chemical composition of Saturn, its rings and one of its moons, Phoebe.
The data appears in the Dec. 23 edition of "Science Express" and in the Dec. 24 print edition of Science.
Edward Wishnow of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory participated in the research by measuring the spectrum of methane in the laboratory at temperatures and densities similar to the planet's - about 90 Kelvin (-297 degrees F) and one atmosphere of pressure. Methane (CH4), the principal component of natural gas, is the main indicator of carbon on Saturn and Jupiter, and it plays a crucial role in the planet’s atmospheric chemistry and history of formation.

Image: A natural color view of Saturn taken by the Cassini spacecraft on its approach to the planet. (NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

The Cassini Composite Infrared Spectrometer (CIRS) is an infrared instrument that measures the intensity of far-infrared radiation, light with wavelengths between those of radar and near-infrared light. These wavelengths are associated with radiation emission by the constituent gases of the planet´s atmosphere or the ices and/or rocks that compose the rings and the moon Phoebe.

"Though we’ve known for years that the atmospheres of the giant planets are mainly made up of hydrogen and helium, using these instruments, we were able to measure the methane content with much greater precision than previous space missions," said Wishnow, who works in LLNL´s Physics and Advanced Technologies Directorate.

The methane measurement shows that carbon is enriched on Saturn by seven times the amount found in the sun and two times the amount found on Jupiter, which is consistent with the rocky core hypothesis of giant planet formation. In this model, Jupiter and Saturn began formation by accreting cores of about 10-12 times the size of Earth´s mass of heavy elements, which, in turn, attracts the surrounding nebular gas in solar proportions.

Wishnow’s laboratory work was conducted with collaborators at the University of British Columbia and was supported by a NASA planetary atmospheres grant.

Other collaborators on the CIRS project include scientists from NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and French and British institutions.

Cassini was launched in July 2004 with a mission to orbit around Saturn and its moons for the next four years. The Huygens probe is scheduled to enter the atmosphere of Titan, Saturn´s biggest moon, on Jan. 14, and eventually descend on a parachute onto its surface about 2½ hours later. Huygens will send its measurements and images to Cassini, which will then send them back to Earth.

Founded in 1952, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has a mission to ensure national security and to apply science and technology to the important issues of our time. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.

Source: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Explore further: Meteorites yield clues to Martian early atmosphere

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

NASA's Deep Space Network turns 50

Dec 19, 2013

NASA's Deep Space Network, the world's largest and most powerful communications system for "talking to" spacecraft, will reach a milestone on Dec. 24: the 50th anniversary of its official creation.

Omega Laser Facility completes record 25,000 experiments

Nov 05, 2013

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) today announced that the Omega Laser Facility, a national user facility for NNSA that is located at and operated by the University of Rochester's Laboratory for Laser Energetics ...

Recommended for you

Meteorites yield clues to Martian early atmosphere

2 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Geologists who analyzed 40 meteorites that fell to Earth from Mars unlocked secrets of the Martian atmosphere hidden in the chemical signatures of these ancient rocks. Their study, published ...

Let's put a sailboat on Titan

5 hours ago

The large moons orbiting the gas giants in our solar system have been getting increasing attention in recent years. Titan, Saturn's largest moon, is the only natural satellite known to house a thick atmosphere. ...

Image: Rosetta's Philae lander snaps a selfie

5 hours ago

Philae is awake… and taking pictures! This image, acquired last night with the lander's CIVA (Comet nucleus Infrared and Visible Analyzer) instrument, shows the left and right solar panels of ESA's well-traveled ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Meteorites yield clues to Martian early atmosphere

(Phys.org) —Geologists who analyzed 40 meteorites that fell to Earth from Mars unlocked secrets of the Martian atmosphere hidden in the chemical signatures of these ancient rocks. Their study, published ...

Let's put a sailboat on Titan

The large moons orbiting the gas giants in our solar system have been getting increasing attention in recent years. Titan, Saturn's largest moon, is the only natural satellite known to house a thick atmosphere. ...

ESO image: A study in scarlet

This new image from ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile reveals a cloud of hydrogen called Gum 41. In the middle of this little-known nebula, brilliant hot young stars are giving off energetic radiation that ...

How kids' brain structures grow as memory develops

Our ability to store memories improves during childhood, associated with structural changes in the hippocampus and its connections with prefrontal and parietal cortices. New research from UC Davis is exploring ...

Gate for bacterial toxins found

Prof. Dr. Dr. Klaus Aktories and Dr. Panagiotis Papatheodorou from the Institute of Experimental and Clinical Pharmacology and Toxicology of the University of Freiburg have discovered the receptor responsible ...