Research Images As Art 2007 Gallery

Titan's hazy secrets

Prof Andrew Coates, Space & Climate Physics

Saturn's moon Titan is the second largest in the solar system - and the only one with a dense atmosphere. The atmosphere, nitrogen and methane, resembles that of the early Earth. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft peered through the atmosphere, imaged the haze layers - and ESA’s Huygens probe landed on the surface.

UCL-built equipment on the orbiter detects an unexpected component in Titan's high atmosphere - extremely heavy hydrocarbon-based negative ions. Their mass is at least 10,000 times that of a hydrogen atom, detected at 953 km above the surface – about the distance from London to Milan. The image shows Titan’s haze and the heavy ions.

These are part of the haze in the atmosphere, and may fall towards Titan’s surface as organic gunk. They are Carl Sagan’s ‘tholins’ – a brown residue appearing in the Miller-Urey experiment, where a spark excites a mixture of gases resembling that of Earth’s early atmosphere.


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