Saturn's moon Titan may be more similar to an Earth-like world than previously thought, possessing a layered atmosphere just like our planet. Titan has long held interest for scientists because of its promise, as the only known moon in the solar system that has a dense atmosphere, there has been hope that it might host some form of life. Information provided by three separate spacecraft missions sent to the area has created more speculation about the moon, which is roughly twice the size of our own (which, quite inexplicably, still has no name) but is nine times farther away from the sun and a freezzing -180°C.
The first mission was Voyager 1, which flew by in 1981, followed by Cassini in 2004, and the next year by the Huygens probe, which actually landed on its surface. Despite the massive amounts of data collected by all three vehicles and the dense athmosphere, scientists have still not been able to get conclusive evidence on what is going on with Titan’s atmosphere.
To clear up some of the mystery, the two researchers --Benjamin Charnay, a planetary scientist at France's National Center of Scientific Research and colleague, Sébastien Lebonnois-- put together a three dimensional computer model that incorporates information collected from all three space vehicles that includes among other things, chemical compositions, dune movement and measurements of wind and cloud formations and were able to conclude that Titan’s atmosphere very clearly has at least one boundary, which is the part of an atmosphere that is impacted by the surface (friction, heat, etc.) and vice-versa.
But they also found evidence that there appears to be a second boundary as well that is likely caused by changes in seasonal air circulation. The lowest layer is most influenced by a planet or moon's surface, and has greatest influence on the surface with clouds and winds, as well as by sculpting dunes found on Titan.
Earth's boundary layer, which is between 1,650 feet and 1.8 miles (500 meters and 3 kilometers) thick, is controlled mostly by solar heat warming the planet's surface. Since Titan is more distnat from the sun, its boundary layer might behave quite differently. Titan's atmosphere is thick and opaque, obscuring our knowledge about its lower layers. "This layer is very important for the climate and weather — we live in the terrestrial boundary layer," said Charnay.
Their simulations revealed the lower atmosphere of Titan appears separated into two layers that are both distinct from the upper atmosphere in terms of temperature. The lowermost boundary layer is shallow, only about 2,600 feet (800 meters) deep and, like Earth's, changes on a daily basis. The layer above, which is 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) deep, changes seasonally.
The existence of two lower atmospheric layers that both respond to changes in temperature help reconcile the formerly disparate findings regarding Titan's boundary layer, "so there are no more conflicting observations," Charnay said. This new work help explains the winds on Titan as well as the spacing seen between the giant dunes on Titan's equator. Also, "it could imply the formation of boundary layer clouds of methane on Titan," Charnay said.
In the future, Charnay and his colleagues will include how methane on Titan moves in a cycle from surface lakes and seas to atmospheric clouds, just as water does on Earth. "3D models will be very useful in the future to explain the data we will get about the atmospheres of exoplanets," Charnay added.
The origin of Titan's nitrogen-rich air is a mystery. A recent theory is that the atmosphere was created 3.9 billion years ago in a period known asthe late heavy bombardment, when armadas of comets zipped through the solar system.
"Huge amounts of cometary bodies would have collided with outer icy satellites, including Titan," said Yasuhito Sekine of the University of Tokyo, Japan.
Sekine and his colleagues fired projectiles into a mixture of ammonia and water ice similar to Titan's crust. The impacts converted some of the ammonia into nitrogen gas, and Sekine's team concluded that ancient comet impacts could have liberated enough nitrogen to build Titan's atmosphere.
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, precursors of life, being formed 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.
Charnay and his colleague Sébastien Lebonnois detailed their findings in the Jan. 15 issue of the journal Nature Geoscience.