NASA Planetary Scientist Conor Nixon explains his discovery of propylene on Titan, Saturn's largest moon. Scientists have known about the presence of atmospheric hydrocarbons on Titan since Voyager 1 flew by in 1980, but one molecule, propylene, was curiously missing. Now, thanks to new data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft, propylene has been detected for the first time on Titan.
With a thick atmosphere, clouds, a rain cycle and giant lakes, Saturn's large moon Titan is a surprisingly Earthlike place. But unlike on Earth, Titan's surface is far too cold for liquid water - instead, Titan's clouds, rain, and lakes consist of liquid hydrocarbons like methane and ethane (which exist as gases here on Earth). When these hydrocarbons evaporate and encounter ultraviolet radiation in Titan's upper atmosphere, some of the molecules are broken apart and reassembled into longer hydrocarbons like ethylene and propane.
NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft first revealed the presence of several species of atmospheric hydrocarbons when it flew by Titan in 1980, but one molecule was curiously missing - propylene, the main ingredient in plastic number 5. Now, thanks to NASA's Cassini spacecraft, scientists have detected propylene on Titan for the first time, solving a long-standing mystery about the solar system's most Earthlike moon.