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The significance of Titan's glow

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A research team from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center has published a paper detailing an unusual glow on Titan, one of Saturn's moons.

A three-minute snapshot of the moon taken by ALMA, a highly sensitive network of antennae, showed the moon glowing in a split across the dawn (west) side and the dusk (east) side.

Conor Nixon and Martin Cordiner, two of the lead authors on this paper, are not sure yet what caused this localized glow. The glow that ALMA picked up is made of hydrogen isocyanide (HNC) and cyanoacetylene (HC3N), two molecules which the Cassini mission detected on Titan.

However, based on other information about Titan, scientists would have guessed that these molecules would be spread evenly across Titan by winds, not localized around the eastern and western poles.

"The fact that we have observed east-west asymmetries means that Titan's atmosphere can no longer be assumed to be longitudinally uniform, which has significant implications for the interpretation of Cassini data and other observations. Not only that, but we now have to come up with explanations for our observations in terms of new, previously unknown longitudinally variable phenomena acting on or in Titan's atmosphere," Cordiner said in an interview.

The team will do additional research to determine whether this glow was a one-time anomaly, or a regular pattern in Titan's atmosphere. They will take a longer picture of Titan's surface using ALMA to see if they can observe the asymmetrical glow again.

If the glow is confirmed, "It means that there is something going on that we don't understand, and will eventually lead to a much deeper understanding of how Titan's atmosphere works. By extension, we will probably have a better appreciation of the other terrestrial planet atmospheres, especially Venus and Earth," said Nixon.

As to what's causing the glow, the scientists have a range of possibilities they are considering, including atmospheric chemical processes, unusual atmospheric patterns, or something like a magnetic field that might affect the distribution of these molecules.

Whatever comes of these findings, this research definitely seems to point to Titan's atmosphere being more complex than originally thought.

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