This strange, false-color image of otherwise familiar planet Saturn recorded from the Keck I telescope on Hawaii's Mauna Kea shows temperature changes based on thermal infrared emission in the gas giant's atmosphere and rings. Based on the effects of sunlight during the southern summer season, general warming trends were anticipated. But a surprise was in store.
An unexpected result of the infrared image data was the a clear indication of an abruptly warmer polar cap and bright hot spot at Saturn's south pole. The warm south pole and hot spot may be unique in the solar system and a further exploration of the region is planned using instruments on the Cassini spacecraft. So how hot is Saturn's hot spot? The upper tropospheric temperature at the pole is a sweltering 91 Kelvin (-296 degrees Fahrenheit).
Saturn's moons have long been considered prime candidates for the first discovery of extraterrestrail life. NASA's Cassini spacecraft buzzed Titan last year, coming close enough to taste the Saturnian moon's atmosphere. The data acquired has implications for our understanding of life throughout the galaxy, as well as Earth's own past.
The second largest moon in the solar system, Titan has long been of interest for hopeful exobiologists. As the only other body we know of with surface bodies of liquid, complete with nitrogen, methane and complete seasonal weather weather patterns (similar to Earth's). It even has beaches, though you'll need a little more than a swimsuit to visit. Vast bodies of chemicals constantly stirred by wind and wave, heated over a gentle sunlight heat with the occasional dash of articles from Saturn's magnetosphere for spice - a perfect recipe for life. Just like a certain planet you might be familiar with (look down if you forget).
Of course there a few minor differences from our own blue-green globe. There's no oxygen for one thing, but if you think that's a problem then you're guilty of "aerobic respiration prejudice" (don't worry, most multicellular organisms are). It's also really quite amazingly cold - so cold that it has awesomely-named "cryovolcanoes", where boiled (or even just melted) water is enough to set off seismic-level explosions. Again, that's a barrier that's been overcome by homegrown Earth bacteria, so there's no reason it couldn't be managed elsewhere.
Cassini's onboard instruments have detected hydrocarbons containing up to seven carbon atoms. How important is that for life? Here's a hint: molecules with carbon in them are called organic, and those without are inorganic. Carbon is kind of a big deal, and the more (and more complicated) carbon compounds present the further towards the great cosmic chemical cocktail that is "life" you are. Some scientists believe that the Titanian interior, with its greater temperature, could already host microbial life - but it'll be a while before we can check that (unless we get real lucky, and some alien cells get real unlucky, with a cryovolcano eruption). One thing's for sure - the craft is only on the sixth of forty-five planned flybys so we can expect to hear a lot more about this real soon.
PS: Yes, it is ironic that we're expecting Titanic lifeforms to be single celled.
Posted by Luke McKinney. Photo Credit: James Estrin/New York Times.
Red Saturn Image credit: Credit: G. S. Orton & P. A. Yanamandra-Fisher (JPL), Keck Observatory, NASA
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