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Press Release 09-150
Storm Clouds Over Titan

Ground-based telescope captures first visual images of storm clouds over the tropics of Saturn's largest moon

Gemini North infrared image of Jupiter and Titan.

Gemini North infrared image of Saturn and Titan.
Credit and Larger Version

August 12, 2009

View a video of astronomers Henry Roe and Mike Brown discussing recently announced observations of storm clouds in the tropics of Titan.

Taking advantage of advanced techniques to correct distortions caused by Earth's atmosphere, astronomers used the NSF-supported Gemini Observatory to capture the first images of clouds over the tropics of Titan, Saturn's largest moon.

The images clarify a long-standing mystery linking Titan's weather and surface features, helping astronomers better understand the moon of Saturn, viewed by some scientists as an analog to Earth when our planet was young.

The effort also served as the latest demonstration of adaptive optics, which use deformable mirrors to enable NSF's suite of ground-based telescopes to capture images that in some cases exceed the resolution of images captured by space-based counterparts.

Emily Schaller from the University of Hawai'i, Henry Roe from Lowell Observatory, and Tapio Schneider and Mike Brown, both of Caltech, reported their findings in the Aug. 13, 2009, issue of Nature.

"Adaptive optics are helping our ground-based telescopes accomplish feats that have until now been capable only with telescopes in space," said Brian Patten, a program director in NSF's Astronomy Division. "Now, we can remove the affects of the atmosphere, capturing images that in some cases exceed the resolution of those captured by space-based telescopes. Investments in adaptive optics technology are really starting to pay off."

On Titan, clouds of light hydrocarbons, not water, occasionally emerge in the frigid, dense atmosphere, mainly clustering near the poles, where they feed scattered methane lakes below.

Closer to the moon's equator, clouds are rare, and the surface is more similar to an arid, wind-swept terrain on Earth. Observations by space probes suggest evidence for liquid-carved terrain in the tropics, but the cause has been a mystery.

Regular monitoring of Titan's infrared spectrum suggests clouds increased dramatically in 1995 and 2004, inspiring astronomers to watch closely for the next brightening, an indicator of storms that could be imaged from Earth.

Schaller and her colleagues used NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF), situated on Hawaii's Mauna Kea, to monitor Titan on 138 nights over a period of two years, and on April 13, 2008, the team saw a tell-tale brightening.

The researchers then turned to the NSF-supported Gemini North telescope, an 8-meter telescope also located on Mauna Kea, to capture the extremely high-resolution infrared snapshots of Titan's cloud cover, including the first storms ever observed in the moon's tropics.

The team suggests that the storms may yield precipitation capable of feeding the apparently liquid-carved channels on the planet's surface, and also influenced weather patterns throughout the moon's atmosphere for several weeks.

Read more in the Gemini press release at http://www.gemini.edu/pio/pr2009-5.php, the Lowell Observatory press release at http://www.lowell.edu/media/releases.php, the University of Hawaii press release at http://www.ifa.hawaii.edu/info/press-releases/SchallerTitanAug09/ and the Caltech release at http://media.caltech.edu/press_releases/13282.

-NSF-

Media Contacts
Joshua Chamot, NSF, (703) 292-7730, jchamot@nsf.gov
Steele Wotkyns, Lowell Observatory, (928) 233-3232, steele@lowell.edu
Peter Michaud, Gemini Observatory, (808) 974-2510, pmichaud@gemini.edu
Jon Weiner, California Institute of Technology, (626) 395-3226, jrweiner@caltech.edu
Louise Good, University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, (808) 956-9403, good@ifa.hawaii.edu

Program Contacts
Nigel A. Sharp, NSF, (703) 292-4905, nsharp@nsf.gov
Brian M Patten, NSF, (703) 292-4910, bpatten@nsf.gov

Principal Investigators
Mike Brown, California Institute of Technology, (626) 395-8423, mbrown@caltech.edu

Co-Investigators
Henry Roe, Lowell Observatory, (928) 233-3218, hroe@lowell.edu
Emily Schaller, University of Arizona, (386) 846 4739, schaller@ifa.hawaii.edu
Tapio Schneider, California Institute of Technology, (626) 395-6143, tapio@gps.caltech.edu

Related Websites
Gemini Observatory: http://www.gemini.edu

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2014, its budget is $7.2 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,500 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $593 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

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Henry Roe and Mike Brown discuss recently announced observations of Titan's storm clouds.
View Video
Henry Roe and Mike Brown discuss recently announced observations of Titan's storm clouds.
Credit and Larger Version

Gemini North adaptive optics image of Titan showing storm feature.
Gemini North adaptive optics image of Titan showing storm feature.
Credit and Larger Version



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