October 1, 2014
The international Cassini mission has revealed that a giant, toxic cloud is hovering over the south pole of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, after the atmosphere has cooled in a dramatic fashion.
Scientists analysing data from the mission found that this giant polar vortex contains frozen particles of the toxic compound hydrogen cyanide.
“The discovery suggests that the atmosphere of Titan’s southern hemisphere is cooling much faster than we expected,” says Remco de Kok of Leiden Observatory and SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research, lead author of the study published in the journal Nature.
Unlike any other moon in the Solar System, Titan is shrouded by a dense atmosphere dominated by nitrogen, with small amounts of methane and other trace gases. Almost 10 times further from the Sun than Earth, Titan is very cold, allowing methane and other hydrocarbons to rain onto its surface to form rivers and lakes.
Like Earth, Titan experiences seasons as it makes its 29-year orbit around the Sun along with Saturn. Each of the four seasons lasts about seven Earth years and the most recent seasonal switch occurred in 2009, when summer transitioned to autumn in the southern hemisphere.
In May 2012, images from Cassini revealed a huge swirling cloud, several hundred kilometres across, taking shape at the south pole.
image credits: NASA JPL-Caltech, ASI, University of Arizona, SSI, Leiden Observatory & SRON