Earth-like Cirrus Clouds Found on Titan

by Nancy Atkinson on February 4, 2011

Titan peeks from behind two of Saturn's rings. Another small moon Epimetheus, appears just above the rings. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

It seems Titan is getting more Earth-like all the time. There are lakes, rainfall (never mind that any liquids on Titan are frigid hydrocarbons), dust storms, lightning and all sorts of other activity going on it the atmosphere, along with clouds. And now, not just any clouds but cirrus clouds, very similar to what we have on Earth: thin, wispy clouds of ice particles high in the atmosphere. A team of researchers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center say that unlike Titan’s brownish haze, the ice clouds are pearly white.

“This is the first time we have been able to get details about these clouds,” said Robert Samuelson, an emeritus scientist at Goddard and the co-author of a new paper published in the journal Icarus. “Previously, we had a lot of information about the gases in Titan’s atmosphere but not much about the [high-altitude] clouds.”


Using the Composite Infrared Spectrometer (CIRS) on NASA’s Cassini spacecraft scientists can get a “weather report” of sorts. Previously, scientists have found that Titan’s intriguing atmosphere has a one-way cycle that delivers hydrocarbons and other organic compounds to the ground as precipitation.

Those compounds don’t evaporate to replenish the atmosphere, but somehow the supply has not run out.
Additionally, puffy methane and ethane clouds had been found before by ground-based observers and in images taken by Cassini. But these new clouds are much thinner and located higher in the atmosphere.

“They are very tenuous and very easy to miss,” said Carrie Anderson, the paper’s lead author. “The only earlier hints that they existed were faint glimpses that NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft caught as it flew by Titan in 1980.”

So what are these cirrus clouds made of?

This mosaic of Titan was created from the first flyby of the moon by Cassini in 2004. Credit: NASA/JPL/SS

More than a half-dozen hydrocarbons have been identified in gas form in Titan’s atmosphere, but many scientists feel there are probably many more that haven’t yet been identified.

The clouds on Titan can’t be made from water because of the planet’s extreme cold. “If Titan has any water on the surface, it would be solid as a rock,” said Goddard’s Michael Flasar, the Principal Investigator for CIRS.

Instead, the key ingredient is likely methane. High in the atmosphere, some of the methane breaks up and reforms into ethane and other hydrocarbons, or combines with nitrogen to make materials called nitriles. Any of these compounds can probably form clouds if enough accumulates in a sufficiently cold area.

To find these cloud, the team focuses on the observations made when CIRS is positioned to peer into the atmosphere at an angle, grazing the edge of Titan. This path through the atmosphere is longer than the one when the spacecraft looks straight down at the surface. Planetary scientists call this “viewing on the limb,” and it raises the odds of encountering enough molecules of interest to yield a strong signal.

So, when the researchers look at the data, they can separate the telltale signatures of ice clouds from the other aerosols in the atmosphere. “These beautiful, beautiful ice clouds are optically thin, and they’re diffuse,” said Anderson. “But we were able to pick up on them because of the long path lengths of the observations.”

NASA has a long article that describes these new observations in more detail.

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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