A new discovery at NASA shows that Saturn's moon Titan glows in localized pockets, across the north and south poles. The effect is localized across the east and the west, so that while the northern part of Titan experiences dusk, the southern part is breaking into dawn.

A research paper about this discovery was published online today in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

"This is an unexpected and potentially groundbreaking discovery. These kinds of east-to-west variations have never been seen before in Titan's atmospheric gases. Explaining their origin presents us with a fascinating new problem," said Martin Cordiner, the lead author of the study.

NASA is currently studying Titan's surface using highly sensitive telescopes. The organization is studying atmospheric conditions, clouds, hazes, surface temperatures and surface changes on Titan. The discovery about the way dawn and dusk occur on Titan came from information captured by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), which is located in Chile. The ALMA is incredibly sensitive to slight changes. The research team focused the ALMA on Titan for three minutes, focusing on levels of hydrogen isocyanide (HNC) and cyanoacetylene (HC3N). Scientists at NASA know that Titan's atmosphere contains these gases because they were confirmed by NASA's Cassini mission. The Cassini spacecraft is currently orbiting Saturn to learn more about the planet and its two moons. The Cassini mission has been ongoing since 2008, and will last until 2017.

The Cassini mission is focused in part on discovering climate changes on Titan. The discovery that Titan's atmosphere is split across the poles is a huge deal.

"It seems incredible that chemical mechanisms could be operating on rapid enough timescales to cause enhanced 'pockets' in the observed molecules. We would expect the molecules to be quickly mixed around the globe by Titan's winds," said Conor Nixon, who co-authored the paper.

The scientists are looking into the cause for this localized glow. They speculated that it might be caused by Titan's magnetic fields, or some previously undiscovered atmospheric pattern.

The research for this study was done at NASA's Goddard Center for Astrobiology.

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