Science & Technology

This Is What The James Webb Telescope Saw On Titan

The James Webb Space Telescope observed Saturn's moon Titan, a distant world that has rivers, lakes, clouds, and probably an internal ocean.

The James Webb Space Telescope is the most sophisticated astronomical tool made by human hands. In July of 2022, it revealed its first observations of the universe and forever changed our perspective. Since then, the space telescope has actively been studying not only the most distant light in the universe but also our solar system. Previously, it observed various planets in the solar system, such as Mars and Jupiter. Now, the space telescope turned its billion-dollar eyes to Saturn’s largest moon. Observations with The James Webb Space Telescope have revealed clouds on one of the most fascinating moons in the solar system. As part of its infrared survey of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, the space observatory turned its gaze to the moon in November of 2022.

What James Webb Saw on Titan

Annotated view of James Webb’s observation of Titan. Image Credit: SCIENCE: NASA, ESA, CSA, Webb Titan GTO Team. IMAGE PROCESSING: Alyssa Pagan (STScI).
Annotated view of James Webb’s observation of Titan. Image Credit: SCIENCE: NASA, ESA, CSA, Webb Titan GTO Team. IMAGE PROCESSING: Alyssa Pagan (STScI).

The moon has the densest atmosphere in our solar system, four times denser than Earth’s. The atmosphere of Titan is composed mainly of nitrogen and methane. This gives it its orange colour. Due to this thick haze, it is impossible to discern the features of the moon. This is because visible light cannot reflect off the surface. On November 5, the Webb telescope detected a bright cloud in Titan’s northern hemisphere and, soon after, another cloud in its atmosphere. The telescope observes the universe in infrared light, which cannot be seen by humans.

A Liquid Water Ocean?

Evolution of clouds on Titan over 30 hours between Nov. 4 and Nov. 6, 2022, as seen by Webb NIRCam (left) and Keck NIRC-2 (right).
Evolution of clouds on Titan over 30 hours between Nov. 4 and Nov. 6, 2022, as seen by Webb NIRCam (left) and Keck NIRC-2 (right).

The larger cloud was located over Titan’s northern polar region near Kraken Mare. This is the largest known liquid sea of methane on the moon’s surface. There are liquid bodies like the ones that are found on Earth. However, Titan’s rivers, lakes, and seas are made up of liquid ethane and methane. This causes clouds and rain to fall from the sky. A liquid water ocean is also believed to exist inside Titan. Also, Titan’s lower atmosphere was also observed with Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph instrument at different wavelengths of infrared light that are not visible to ground-based observatories such as Keck.

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