Prepare for the Halloween references to pour in today. New maps of Saturn’s moon Titan, from a NASA-led study, have revealed large areas of trace gases glowing brightly on Saturn’s moon.

Titan moon glows

“This is an unexpected and potentially groundbreaking discovery,” said Martin Cordiner, who works at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and was lead author of the study. “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.”

The recent discovery was made possible with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile. This array is a series of high-precision antennas. The ALMA detected the chemical signatures of hydrogen isocyanide (HNC) and cyanoacetylene (HC3N). NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has confirmed the findings by detecting cloud caps above the north and south pole thick with HNC and HC3N.

What’s ‘unexpected’ is these clouds of gas shift away from the poles at the highest altitudes. This flies in the face of what researchers thought they understood about Titan’s atmosphere. In Titan’s middle atmosphere, powerful winds moving east-west create areas of mixed gases. They look similar to Jupiter’s gas bands, but smaller. The changes as you increase altitude are distinct and the gases don’t mix. Something that has scientists stumped.

“It seems incredible that chemical mechanisms could be operating on rapid enough timescales to cause enhanced ‘pocket’’ in the observed molecules,” said Conor Nixon, a coauthor of the paper. “We would expect the molecules to be quickly mixed around the globe by Titan’s winds.”

Some possible explanations include thermal effects or unknown atmospheric circulation patterns. NASA plans to conduct additional observations to help nail down an explanation.

Why the interest in Titan’s atmosphere? Space Fellowship explains it best.

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.

Image credit: NRAO, NASA