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Impossible cloud found on Titan. Again

Staff Writer | September 23, 2016
The puzzling appearance of an ice cloud seemingly out of thin air has prompted NASA scientists to suggest that a different process than previously thought - possibly similar to one seen over Earth's poles - could be forming clouds on Saturn's moon Titan.
Space   Brownish-orange atmosphere
Located in Titan's stratosphere, the cloud is made of a compound of carbon and nitrogen known as dicyanoacetylene (C4N2), an ingredient in the chemical cocktail that colors the giant moon's hazy, brownish-orange atmosphere.

Decades ago, the infrared instrument on NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft spotted an ice cloud just like this one on Titan. What has puzzled scientists ever since is this: they detected less than 1 percent of the dicyanoacetylene gas needed for the cloud to condense.

Recent observations from NASA's Cassini mission yielded a similar result. Using Cassini's composite infrared spectrometer, or CIRS - which can identify the spectral fingerprints of individual chemicals in the atmospheric brew - researchers found a large, high-altitude cloud made of the same frozen chemical.

Yet, just as Voyager found, when it comes to the vapor form of this chemical, CIRS reported that Titan's stratosphere is as dry as a desert.

"The appearance of this ice cloud goes against everything we know about the way clouds form on Titan," said Carrie Anderson, a CIRS co-investigator at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and lead author of the study.

The typical process for forming clouds involves condensation. On Earth, we're familiar with the cycle of evaporation and condensation of water. The same kind of cycle takes place in Titan's troposphere - the weather-forming layer of Titan's atmosphere - but with methane instead of water.

A different condensation process takes place in the stratosphere - the region above the troposphere - at Titan's north and south winter poles. In this case, layers of clouds condense as the global circulation pattern forces warm gases downward at the pole. The gases then condense as they sink through cooler and cooler layers of the polar stratosphere.

Either way, a cloud forms when the air temperature and pressure are favorable for the vapor to condense into ice. The vapor and the ice reach a balance point - an equilibrium - that is determined by the air temperature and pressure. Because of this equilibrium, scientists can calculate the amount of vapor where ice is present.

"For clouds that condense, this equilibrium is mandatory, like the law of gravity," said Robert Samuelson, an emeritus scientist at Goddard and a co-author of the paper.

But the numbers don't compute for the cloud made from dicyanoacetylene. The scientists determined that they would need at least 100 times more vapor to form an ice cloud where the cloud top was observed by Cassini's CIRS.

One explanation suggested early on was that the vapor might be present, but Voyager's instrument wasn't sensitive enough in the critical wavelength range needed to detect it.

But when CIRS also didn't find the vapor, Anderson and her Goddard and Caltech colleagues proposed an altogether different explanation.

Instead of the cloud forming by condensation, they think the C4N2 ice forms because of reactions taking place on other kinds of ice particles.

The researchers call this "solid-state chemistry," because the reactions involve the ice, or solid, form of the chemical.