Scientists analyzing data from NASA’s Cassini mission have discovered that a giant, toxic cloud is hovering over the south pole of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, after the atmosphere there cooled dramatically.
The scientists found that this giant polar vortex contains frozen particles of the toxic compound hydrogen cyanide, or HCN.
“The discovery suggests that the atmosphere of Titan’s southern hemisphere is cooling much faster than we expected,” said Remco de Kok of Leiden Observatory and SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research, lead author of the study published today in the journal Nature.
Titan is the only moon in the solar system that is cloaked in a dense atmosphere. Like our home planet, Earth, Titan experiences seasons. As it makes its 29-year orbit around the sun along with Saturn, each season lasts about seven Earth years. The most recent seasonal switch occurred in 2009, when winter gave way to spring in the northern hemisphere, and summer transitioned to autumn in the southern hemisphere.
In May 2012, while Titan’s southern hemisphere was experiencing autumn, images from Cassini revealed a huge swirling cloud, several hundred miles across, taking shape above Titan’s south pole. This polar vortex appears to be an effect of the change of season.
A spectrum splits the light from a celestial body into its constituent colors, revealing signatures of the elements and molecules present. Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIMS) maps the distribution of chemical compounds in Titan’s atmosphere and on its surface.
“The light coming from the polar vortex showed a remarkable difference with respect to other portions of Titan’s atmosphere,” says de Kok. “We could clearly see a signature of frozen HCN molecules.”