After the extinction of all plant life on Earth, humanity is building a fleet of space greenhouses to save the last plants and hopefully our planet’s ecosystem. One such craft orbits just beyond Saturn in the glow of its incredible ring system, just another object among Saturn’s 82 confirmed moons. When the call comes in to destroy the domes and humanity’s last hope to restore our planetary ecosystem, space botanist Freeman Lowell refuses and sets out to save the last trees in the solar system. This is the plot of the 1972 science fiction film Quiet operation.
Saturn seems almost intentionally designed for science fiction stories. It’s the perfect blend of weirdly alien and totally familiar, and Quiet operation is a thrilling reminder that while the solar system is beautiful, there’s no better place than home. Certainly, there is no place other than Earth in the solar system. There may not be a place like this anywhere. As far as our local neighborhood goes, most places are either barren or actively hostile. Often both. There aren’t even places that superficially resemble Earth, unless you count Saturn’s moon Titan.
From orbit, Titan is utterly indescribable, shrouded in an impenetrable orange mist, making it look more like its gaseous home planet than the rocky world it really is. In 2004, we caught a glimpse beneath these clouds with ESA’s Huygens probe detached from the Cassini orbiter, which descended through the noxious veil to land on Titan’s surface.
This allowed us to see a small portion of the moon in stunning detail, but much of Titan’s larger activity remains a mystery. Enter the James Webb Space Telescope. In the months since the JWST entered full-fledged operation, it has provided images of some of the most distant objects in the observable universe, but it has also taken some time to verify what is happening. happened in our own backyard. We could spend hours looking at images of Jupiter from the JWST. Now the world’s favorite telescope has turned its attention to Titan, using its near-infrared camera – NIRCam – to peer through the methane- and nitrogen-dense atmosphere to the world below. This is according to a recent NASA announcement. It should be noted that these images are currently under review and the results have not yet been peer reviewed.
That said, Titan is of particular interest to astronomers for several reasons. First, unlike other rocky worlds in our solar system – with the obvious exception of Earth – Titan is the only one with an active liquid cycle. The distant lunar world has rivers, lakes and seas. It’s even raining. The main difference between Earth and Titan in this regard is that Titan’s seas are made up of methane and ethane, not water. Secondly, there is a hope, however remote, that organic chemistry has emerged on Titan and that we may one day find truly alien lifeform living on this freezing world. According to New York Times, some scientists wonder if the chemical conditions on Titan could mirror those of early Earth. All of this has scientists itching for a better understanding of what is happening beneath the hazy atmosphere.
Photo: NASA, ESA, CSA, WM Keck Observatory, A. Pagan (STScI). Science: Webb Titan GTO Team
When the images arrived on the morning of November 5, scientists quickly identified the presence of two large clouds in the upper half of the image, one on either side of the moon. These extraterrestrial clouds confirmed a previous hypothesis that clouds should form in the mid-northern hemisphere during Titan’s late summer. Immediately, researchers started wondering how these clouds might change over time, but a still image can’t tell you much. They needed another look, which is where the Keck Observatory came in.
The researchers contacted colleagues at Keck, a pair of massive optical and infrared telescopes on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. After some negotiation with astronomers previously scheduled to use the observatory, a second set of images was captured which confirmed the presence of clouds in roughly the same position but with a slightly altered shape. It’s unclear whether these are the exact same clouds or new ones – two days having elapsed between sightings – but it confirms the seasonal weather patterns predicted by scientists.
Generally, talking about the weather is the lowest form of gossip, but that all changes when the weather in question occurs on another world. These images mark an exciting moment in the study of weather on other worlds, are another feather in the JWST’s hat, and provide useful information for NASA’s planned Dragonfly mission, which will send a probe flying around Titan. in search of life.
You can keep an eye on what the JWST imagines here.
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