Weekend Weather for Titan: “Cloudy with Early A.M. Methane Rain”


Titan has been considered a “unique world in the solar system” since 1908 when, the Spanish astronomer, José Comas y Solá, discovered that it had an atmosphere, something non-existent on other moons.

It seems perfectly appropriate that one of the prime candidates for life in our solar system, Saturn's largest moon, should have surface lakes, rain storms and lightning, shorelines, relatively thick nitrogen atmosphere — and seasons.

Spring has brought methane rain to its equatorial deserts, as revealed in images captured by NASA's Cassini spacecraft (above). This is the first time scientists have obtained current evidence of rain soaking Titan's surface at low latitudes.

Extensive rain from large cloud systems, first spotted by Cassini's cameras in late 2010, has apparently darkened the surface of the moon. The best explanation is that these areas remained wet after methane rainstorms. The NASA/JPL observations released today show the weather systems of Titan's thick atmosphere and the changes wrought on its surface are affected by the changing seasons.

"It's amazing to be watching such familiar activity as rainstorms and seasonal changes in weather patterns on a distant, icy satellite," said Elizabeth Turtle, a Cassini imaging team associate at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab. "These observations are helping us to understand how Titan works as a system, as well as similar processes on our own planet."

The Saturn system experienced equinox, when the sun lies directly over a planet's equator and seasons change, in August 2009. (A full Saturn "year" is almost 30 Earth years.) Years of Cassini observations suggest Titan's global atmospheric circulation pattern responds to the changes in solar illumination, influenced by the atmosphere and the surface, as detailed in the Geophysical Research Letters paper. Cassini found the surface temperature responds more rapidly to sunlight changes than does the thick atmosphere. The changing circulation pattern produced clouds in Titan's equatorial region.

Clouds on Titan are formed of methane as part of an Earth-like cycle that uses methane instead of water. On Titan, methane fills lakes on the surface, saturates clouds in the atmosphere, and falls as rain. Though there is evidence that liquids have flowed on the surface at Titan's equator in the past, liquid hydrocarbons, such as methane and ethane, had only been observed on the surface in lakes at polar latitudes.

The vast expanses of dunes that dominate Titan's equatorial regions require a predominantly arid climate. Scientists suspected that clouds might appear at Titan's equatorial latitudes as spring in the northern hemisphere progressed. But they were not sure if dry channels previously observed were cut by seasonal rains or remained from an earlier, wetter climate.

An arrow-shaped storm appeared in the equatorial regions on Sept. 27, 2010 — the equivalent of early April in Titan's "year" — and a broad band of clouds appeared the next month. Over the next few months, Cassini's imaging science subsystem captured short-lived surface changes visible in images of Titan's surface. A 193,000-square-mile (500,000-square-kilometer) region along the southern boundary of Titan's Belet dune field, as well as smaller areas nearby, had become darker. Scientists compared the imaging data to data obtained by other instruments and ruled out other possible causes for surface changes. They concluded this change in brightness is most likely the result of surface wetting by methane rain.

These observations suggest that recent weather on Titan is similar to that over Earth's tropics. In tropical regions, Earth receives its most direct sunlight, creating a band of rising motion and rain clouds that encircle the planet.

"These outbreaks may be the Titan equivalent of what creates Earth's tropical rainforest climates, even though the delayed reaction to the change of seasons and the apparently sudden shift is more reminiscent of Earth's behavior over the tropical oceans than over tropical land areas," said Tony Del Genio of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, New York, a co-author and a member of the Cassini imaging team.

On Earth, the tropical bands of rain clouds shift slightly with the seasons but are present within the tropics year-round. On Titan, such extensive bands of clouds may only be prevalent in the tropics near the equinoxes and move to much higher latitudes as the planet approaches the solstices. The imaging team intends to watch whether Titan evolves in this fashion as the seasons progress from spring toward northern summer.

"It is patently clear that there is so much more to learn from Cassini about seasonal forcing of a complex surface-atmosphere system like Titan's and, in turn, how it is similar to, or differs from, the Earth's," said Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team lead at the Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo. "We are eager to see what the rest of Cassini's Solstice Mission will bring."

If a manned mission ever makes it to Titan, they will find a world where temperatures plunge to minus 274 degrees Fahrenheit, methane rains and dunes of ice or tar cover the planet's most arid regions — a cold mirror image of Earth's tropical climate, according to scientists at the University of Chicago.

Titan's ice is stronger than most bedrock found on earth, yet it is more brittle, causing it to erode more easily, according to new research by San Francisco State University Assistant Professor Leonard Sklar. Sklar and his team developed new measurements from tests on ice as cold as minus 170 degrees Celcius which demonstrate that ice gets stronger as temperature decreases. Understanding ice and its resistance to erosion is critical to answering how Titan's earth-like landscape formed. Titan has lakes, rivers and dunes, but its bedrock is made of ice as cold as minus 180 degrees Celcius, eroded by rivers of liquid methane.

"You have all these things that are analogous to Earth. At the same time, it's foreign and unfamiliar," said Ray Pierrehumbert, the Louis Block Professor in Geophysical Sciences at Chicago.

Titan, one of Saturn's 60 moons, is the only moon in the solar system large enough to support an atmosphere. Pierrehumbert and colleague Jonathan Mitchell, have been comparing observations of Titan collected by the Cassini space probe and the Hubble Space Telescope with their own computer simulations of the moon's atmosphere.

"One of the things that attracts me about Titan is that it has a lot of the same circulation features as Earth, but done with completely different substances that work at different temperatures," Pierrehumbert said. On Earth, for example, water forms liquid and is relatively active as a vapor in the atmosphere. But on Titan, water is a rock. "It's no more volatile on Titan than sand is on Earth."

Methane-natural gas-assumes an Earth-like role of water on Titan. It exists in enough abundance to condense into rain and form puddles on the surface within the range of temperatures that occur on Titan.

"The ironic thing on Titan is that although it's much colder than Earth, it actually acts like a super-hot Earth rather than a snowball Earth, because at Titan temperatures, methane is more volatile than water vapor is at Earth temperatures," Pierrehumbert said.

Pierrehumbert and Mitchell even go so far as to call Titan's climate tropical, even though it sounds odd for a moon that orbits Saturn more than nine times farther from the sun than Earth. Along with the behavior of methane, Titan's slow rotation rate also contributes to its tropical nature. Earth's tropical weather systems extend only to plus or minus 30 degrees of latitude from the equator. But on Titan, which rotates only once every 16 days, "the tropical weather system extends to the entire planet," Pierrehumbert said.

Titan's dense, nitrogen-methane atmosphere responds much more slowly than Earth's atmosphere, as it receives about 100 times less sunlight than Earth. Seasons on Titan last more than seven Earth years. Its clouds form and move much like those on Earth, but in a much slower, more lingering fashion.

Physicists from the University of Granada and University of Valencia, analyzing data sent by the Cassini-Huygens probe from Titan, have “unequivocally” proved that there is natural electrical activity on Titan. The world scientist community believes that the probability of organic molecules being formed — the precursors of life — is higher on planets or moons which have an atmosphere with electrical storms.

Scientists with NASA's Cassini mission have monitored Titan's atmosphere for three-and-a-half years, between July 2004 and December 2007, and observed more than 200 clouds. They found that the way these clouds are distributed around Titan matches scientists' global circulation models. The only exception is timing — clouds are still noticeable in the southern hemisphere while fall is approaching.

"Titan's clouds don't move with the seasons exactly as we expected," said Sebastien Rodriguez of the University of Paris Diderot, in collaboration with Cassini visual and infrared mapping spectrometer team members at the University of Nantes, France. "We see lots of clouds during the summer in the southern hemisphere, and this summer weather seems to last into the early fall. It looks like Indian summer on Earth, even if the mechanisms are radically different on Titan from those on Earth. Titan may then experience a warmer and wetter early autumn than forecasted by the models."

On Earth, abnormally warm, dry weather periods in late autumn occur when low-pressure systems are blocked in the winter hemisphere. By contrast, scientists think the sluggishness of temperature changes at the surface and low atmosphere on Titan may be responsible for its unexpected warm and wet, hence cloudy, late summer.

432538main_titan_huygens_big_946-71 Scientists will continue to observe the long-term changes during Cassini's extended mission, which runs until the fall of 2010, which will offer plenty of opportunities to monitor climate change on Titan — the spacecraft makes its next flyby of the moon on June 6. We'll learn if the sluggish weather is the result of a slow rate of temperature change at the surface.

Cassini results so far don't show if Titan has an ocean beneath the surface, but scientists say this hypothesis is very plausible and they intend to keep investigating. Detecting tides induced by Saturn, a goal of the radio science team, would provide the clearest evidence for such a hidden water layer.

"Additional flybys may tell us whether the crust is thick or thin today," says Jonathan Lunine, a Cassini interdisciplinary investigator with the University of Rome, Tor Vergata, Italy, and the University of Arizona, Tucson. "With that information we may have a better understanding of how methane, the ephemeral working fluid of Titan's rivers, lakes and clouds, has been resupplied over geologic time. Like the history of water on Earth, this is fundamental to a deep picture of the nature of Titan through time."

The image below provided by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory Thursday May 4, 2006 shows a flattened projection of the Huygens probe's view from 6 miles over Saturn's moon Titan. Researchers have found that Titan's distinctive sand dunes are caused by winds blowing in reverse of the prevailing weather.


The Daily Galaxy via jpl.nasa.gov

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