Scientists analysing data gathered by the Cassini spacecraft have confirmed the presence of heavy negative ions in the upper regions of Titan's atmosphere. These particles may act as organic building blocks for even more complicated molecules and their discovery was completely unexpected because of the chemical composition of the atmosphere (which lacks oxygen and mainly consists of nitrogen and methane). The observation has now been verified on 16 different encounters.
Professor Andrew Coates, researcher at UCL's Mullard Space Science Laboratory and lead author of a new paper*, says: "Cassini's electron spectrometer has enabled us to detect negative ions which have 10,000 times the mass of hydrogen. Additional rings of carbon can build up on these ions, forming molecules called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which may act as a basis for the earliest forms of life.
"Their existence poses questions about the processes involved in atmospheric chemistry and aerosol formation and we now think it most likely that these negative ions form in the upper atmosphere before moving closer to the surface, where they probably form the mist which shrouds the planet and which has hidden its secrets from us in the past. It was this mist which stopped the Voyager mission from examining Titan more closely in 1980 and was one of the reasons that Cassini was launched."
Thursday, November 29, 2007