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'Visibility into the clouds': James Webb Space Telescope images Saturn’s moon Titan

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Titan is the only moon in the solar system with an atmosphere — which, similar to Earth, primarily consists of nitrogen — for reasons unknown to astronomers.


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DECEMBER 05, 2022

The James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, imaged clouds on Saturn’s moon Titan on Nov. 4, beginning a study that will help astronomers better understand Titan’s unique atmosphere.

JWST’s infrared observations will be used to track Titan’s weather patterns prior to a NASA mission to Titan called Dragonfly, set to launch in 2027, according to Conor Nixon, associate laboratory chief of the planetary systems lab at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

“Titan is kind of a mystery … like a big question mark,” Nixon said.

If Titan’s mysteries are explained, Nixon said astronomers may gain a better understanding of the formation of the solar system, including how other planets acquired their atmospheres.

Titan is the only moon in the solar system with an atmosphere — which, similar to Earth, primarily consists of nitrogen — for reasons unknown to astronomers. Nixon added that there are bodies of liquid methane and ethane on its surface, such as lakes and rivers, as well as methane clouds in its lower atmosphere. Astronomers also believe there is an ocean of water beneath Titan’s surface.

Although Titan’s origin is not confirmed, Nixon said researchers theorize that Titan condensed into a mixture of ice and rock near its core as Saturn was beginning to form, and Saturn’s collapsed disk produced its moons. Since Titan was not cold enough to maintain nitrogen, it likely collected ammonia that later turned into nitrogen, which created its nitrogen atmosphere, Nixon added.

Titan has been observed in the past by NASA’s Cassini Spacecraft as well as astronomers at Keck Observatory in Hawaii, according to a UC Berkeley press release.

“What Webb is doing right now with the clouds is continuing the legacy the Cassini started in terms of giving us visibility into the clouds,” Nixon said. “That really enables us to better refine our computer models of the weather patterns.”

Following the JWST observations, Nixon asked campus professor emerita of astronomy Imke de Pater and California Institute of Technology assistant professor Katherine de Kleer to conduct follow up research at Keck Observatory, de Pater said in an email. Keck images were taken 30 to 54 hours after the JWST observations showed similar clouds, which complemented the finding, according to the press release.

Nixon added JWST has an advantage over land telescopes, as Earth’s atmosphere blocks parts of the light spectrum. This can help determine the altitudes of clouds on Titan and the geology of its surface, de Pater noted.

“(Studying Titan) will help us in a way to get closer to studying the origin of life in general,” de Pater said in the email.

Contact Eleanor Jonas at 


DECEMBER 05, 2022