New maps of Saturn’s moon Titan reveal large patches of trace gases shining brightly near its north and south poles.
These regions are curiously shifted off the poles, to the east or west, so that dawn breaks over the southern region while dusk falls over the northern one.
The pair of patches was spotted by a NASA-led international team of researchers investigating the chemical make-up of Titan’s atmosphere.
“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, astrochemist working at the NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, Maryland in the US.
The mapping comes from observations made by the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA), a network of high-precision antennas in Chile.
The wavelengths used by these antennas helped to display the bright glow of the gas-rich areas in Titan’s atmosphere.
Because of ALMA’s sensitivity, the researchers were able to obtain spatial maps of chemicals in Titan’s atmosphere from a ‘snapshot’ observation that lasted less than three minutes.
Titan’s atmosphere has long been of interest because it acts as a chemical factory, using energy from the sun and Saturn’s magnetic field to produce a wide range of organic, or carbon-based, molecules.
Studying this complex chemistry may provide insights into the properties of Earth’s very early atmosphere, which may have shared many chemical characteristics with present-day Titan, NASA reported.