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Publication archive

Saturn's moon Titan has a dense nitrogen-rich atmosphere, with methane as its primary volatile. Titan's atmosphere experiences an active chemistry that produces a haze of organic aerosols that settle to the surface and a dynamic climate in which hydrocarbons are cycled between clouds, rain and seas. Titan displays particularly energetic meteorology at equinox in equatorial regions, including sporadic and large methane storms. In 2009 and 2010, near Titan's northern spring equinox, the Cassini spacecraft observed three distinctive and short-lived spectral brightenings close to the equator. Here, we show from analyses of Cassini spectral data, radiative transfer modelling and atmospheric simulations that the brightenings originate in the atmosphere and are consistent with formation from dust storms composed of micrometre-sized solid organic particles mobilized from underlying dune fields. Although the Huygens lander found evidence that dust can be kicked up locally from Titan's surface, our findings suggest that dust can be suspended in Titan's atmosphere at much larger spatial scale. Mobilization of dust and injection into the atmosphere would require dry conditions and unusually strong near-surface winds (about five times more than estimated ambient winds). Such strong winds are expected to occur in downbursts during rare equinoctial methane storms—consistent with the timing of the observed brightenings. Our findings imply that Titan—like Earth and Mars—has an active dust cycle, which suggests that Titan's dune fields are actively evolving by aeolian processes.
Published: 25 September 2018
Saturn's polar stratosphere exhibits the seasonal growth and dissipation of broad, warm vortices poleward of ~75° latitude, which are strongest in the summer and absent in winter. The longevity of the exploration of the Saturn system by Cassini allows the use of infrared spectroscopy to trace the formation of the North Polar Stratospheric Vortex (NPSV), a region of enhanced temperatures and elevated hydrocarbon abundances at millibar pressures. We constrain the timescales of stratospheric vortex formation and dissipation in both hemispheres. Although the NPSV formed during late northern spring, by the end of Cassini's reconnaissance (shortly after northern summer solstice), it still did not display the contrasts in temperature and composition that were evident at the south pole during southern summer. The newly formed NPSV was bounded by a strengthening stratospheric thermal gradient near 78°N. The emergent boundary was hexagonal, suggesting that the Rossby wave responsible for Saturn's long-lived polar hexagon—which was previously expected to be trapped in the troposphere—can influence the stratospheric temperatures some 300 km above Saturn's clouds.

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Published: 04 September 2018
Saturn's moon Enceladus harbours a global water ocean, which lies under an ice crust and above a rocky core. Through warm cracks in the crust a cryo-volcanic plume ejects ice grains and vapour into space that contain materials originating from the ocean. Hydrothermal activity is suspected to occur deep inside the porous core, powered by tidal dissipation. So far, only simple organic compounds with molecular masses mostly below 50 atomic mass units have been observed in plume material. Here we report observations of emitted ice grains containing concentrated and complex macromolecular organic material with molecular masses above 200 atomic mass units. The data constrain the macromolecular structure of organics detected in the ice grains and suggest the presence of a thin organic-rich film on top of the oceanic water table, where organic nucleation cores generated by the bursting of bubbles allow the probing of Enceladus' organic inventory in enhanced concentrations.
Published: 29 June 2018
Magnetic reconnection is a key process that explosively accelerates charged particles, generating phenomena such as nebular flares, solar flares and stunning aurorae. In planetary magnetospheres, magnetic reconnection has often been identified on the dayside magnetopause and in the nightside magnetodisc, where thin-current-sheet conditions are conducive to reconnection. The dayside magnetodisc is usually considered thicker than the nightside due to the compression of solar wind, and is therefore not an ideal environment for reconnection. In contrast, a recent statistical study of magnetic flux circulation strongly suggests that magnetic reconnection must occur throughout Saturn's dayside magnetosphere. Additionally, the source of energetic plasma can be present in the noon sector of giant planetary magnetospheres. However, so far, dayside magnetic reconnection has only been identified at the magnetopause. Here, we report direct evidence of near-noon reconnection within Saturn's magnetodisc using measurements from the Cassini spacecraft. The measured energetic electrons and ions (ranging from tens to hundreds of keV) and the estimated energy flux of ~2.6 mWm-2 within the reconnection region are sufficient to power aurorae. We suggest that dayside magnetodisc reconnection can explain bursty phenomena in the dayside magnetospheres of giant planets, which can potentially advance our understanding of quasi-periodic injections of relativistic electrons and auroral pulsations.
Published: 05 June 2018
Geophysical data from the Cassini spacecraft imply the presence of a global ocean underneath the ice shell of Enceladus, only a few kilometres below the surface in the South Polar Terrain. Chemical analyses indicate that the ocean is salty and is fed by ongoing hydrothermal activity. In order to explain these observations, an abnormally high heat power (>20 billion watts) is required, as well as a mechanism to focus endogenic activity at the south pole. Here, we show that more than 10 GW of heat can be generated by tidal friction inside the unconsolidated rocky core. Water transport in the tidally heated permeable core results in hot narrow upwellings with temperatures exceeding 363 K, characterized by powerful (1–5 GW) hotspots at the seafloor, particularly at the south pole. The release of heat in narrow regions favours intense interaction between water and rock, and the transport of hydrothermal products from the core to the plume sources. We are thus able to explain the main global characteristics of Enceladus: global ocean, strong dissipation, reduced ice-shell thickness at the south pole and seafloor activity. We predict that this endogenic activity can be sustained for tens of millions to billions of years.
Published: 06 November 2017
The equatorial middle atmospheres of the Earth, Jupiter and Saturn all exhibit a remarkably similar phenomenon–a vertical, cyclic pattern of alternating temperatures and zonal (east–west) wind regimes that propagate slowly downwards with a well-defined multi-year period. Earth's quasi-biennial oscillation (QBO) (observed in the lower stratospheric winds with an average period of 28 months) is one of the most regular, repeatable cycles exhibited by our climate system, and yet recent work has shown that this regularity can be disrupted by events occurring far away from the equatorial region, an example of a phenomenon known as atmospheric teleconnection. Here, we reveal that Saturn's equatorial quasi-periodic oscillation (QPO) (with an ~15-year period) can also be dramatically perturbed. An intense springtime storm erupted at Saturn's northern mid-latitudes in December 2010, spawning a gigantic hot vortex in the stratosphere at 40° N that persisted for three years. Far from the storm, the Cassini temperature measurements showed a dramatic ~10 K cooling in the 0.5–5 mbar range across the entire equatorial region, disrupting the regular QPO pattern and significantly altering the middle-atmospheric wind structure, suggesting an injection of westward momentum into the equatorial wind system from waves generated by the northern storm. Hence, as on Earth, meteorological activity at mid-latitudes can have a profound effect on the regular atmospheric cycles in Saturn's tropics, demonstrating that waves can provide horizontal teleconnections between the phenomena shaping the middle atmospheres of giant planets.
Published: 24 October 2017
Cassini discovered a plethora of neutral and ionized molecules in Titan's ionosphere including, surprisingly, anions and negatively charged molecules extending up to 13,800 u q-1. In this Letter, we forward model the Cassini electron spectrometer response function to this unexpected ionospheric component to achieve an increased mass resolving capability for negatively charged species observed at Titan altitudes of 950–1300 km. We report on detections consistently centered between 25.8 and 26.0 u q-1 and between 49.0–50.1 u q-1 which are identified as belonging to the carbon chain anions, CN-/C3N- and/or C2H-/C4H-, in agreement with chemical model predictions. At higher ionospheric altitudes, detections at 73–74 u q-1 could be attributed to the further carbon chain anions C5N-/C6H- but at lower altitudes and during further encounters extend over a higher mass/charge range. This, as well as further intermediary anions detected at >100 u, provide the first evidence for efficient anion chemistry in space involving structures other than linear chains. Furthermore, at altitudes below <1100 km, the low-mass anions (<150 u q-1) were found to deplete at a rate proportional to the growth of the larger molecules, a correlation that indicates the anions are tightly coupled to the growth process. This study adds Titan to an increasing list of astrophysical environments where chain anions have been observed and shows that anion chemistry plays a role in the formation of complex organics within a planetary atmosphere as well as in the interstellar medium.
Published: 27 July 2017
Interstellar dust (ISD) is the condensed phase of the interstellar medium. In situ data from the Cosmic Dust Analyzer on board the Cassini spacecraft reveal that the Saturnian system is passed by ISD grains from our immediate interstellar neighborhood, the local interstellar cloud. We determine the mass distribution of 36 interstellar grains, their elemental composition, and a lower limit for the ISD flux at Saturn. Mass spectra and grain dynamics suggest the presence of magnesium-rich grains of silicate and oxide composition, partly with iron inclusions. Major rock-forming elements (magnesium, silicon, iron, and calcium) are present in cosmic abundances, with only small grain-to-grain variations, but sulfur and carbon are depleted. The ISD grains in the solar neighborhood appear to be homogenized, likely by repeated processing in the interstellar medium.
Published: 16 April 2016
For the last decade, the passive radiometer incorporated in the Cassini RADAR has recorded the 2.2 cm wavelength thermal emission from Titan's seas. In this paper, we analyze the radiometry observations collected from February 2007 to January 2015 over one of these seas, Ligeia Mare, with the goal of providing constraints on its composition, bathymetry, and dynamics. In light of the depth profile obtained by Mastrogiuseppe et al. (2014) and of a two-layer model, we find that the dielectric constant of the sea liquid is <1.8, and its loss tangent is < 3.6 +4.3-2.1 × 10-5. Both results point to a composition dominated by liquid methane rather than ethane. A high methane concentration suggests that Ligeia Mare is primarily fed by methane-rich precipitation and/or ethane has been removed from it (e.g., by crustal interaction). Our result on the dielectric constant of the seafloor is less constraining (< 2.9+0.9-0.9), but we favor a scenario where the floor of Ligeia Mare is covered by a sludge of compacted and possibly nitrile-rich organic material formed by the deposition of photochemical haze or by rain washing of the nearby shores. We use these results to produce a low-resolution bathymetry map of the sea. We also estimate the temperature variation of the bulk sea between February 2007 and July 2013 to be <2 K, which provides a constraint on its net evaporative cooling currently being explored in ocean circulation models. Lastly, we suggest a lag in the summer warming of the northern polar terrains.
Published: 25 February 2016
The Ku-band (13.8 GHz – 2.2 cm) RADAR instrument onboard the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft has revealed the richness of the surface of Titan, as numerous seas, lakes, rivers, cryo-volcanic flows and vast dune fields have been discovered. Linear dunes are a major geomorphological feature present on Titan, covering up to 17% of its surface, mainly in equatorial regions. However, the resolution of the RADAR instrument is not good enough to allow a detailed study of the morphology of these features. In addition, other linear wind-related landforms, such as mega-yardangs (linear wind-abraded ridges formed in cohesive rocks), are likely to present a comparable radar signature that could be confused with the one of dunes. We conducted a comparative study of the radar radiometry of both linear dunes and mega-yardangs, based on representative terrestrial analogues: the linear dunes located in the Great Sand Sea in western Egypt and in the Namib Desert in Namibia, and the mega-yardangs observed in the Lut Desert in eastern Iran and in the Borkou Desert in northern Chad. We analysed the radar scattering of both terrestrial linear dunes and mega-yardangs, using high-resolution radar images acquired by the X-band (9.6 GHz – 3.1 cm) sensor of the TerraSAR-X satellite. Variations seen in the radar response of dunes are the result of a contrast between the dune and interdune scattering, while for mega-yardangs these variations are the result of a contrast between ridges and erosion valleys. We tested a simple surface scattering model, with parameters derived from the local topography and surface roughness estimates, to accurately reproduce the radar signal variations for both landforms. It appears that we can discriminate between two types of dunes – bare interdunes as in Egypt and sand-covered interdunes as in Namibia, and between two types of mega-yardangs – young yardangs as in Iran and older ones as in Chad.
--- Remainder of abstract truncated due to character limitations ---
Published: 08 August 2015
First published online 4 June 2015.

Titan's polar surface is dotted with hundreds of lacustrine depressions. Based on the hypothesis that they are karstic in origin, we aim at determining the efficiency of surface dissolution as a landshaping process on Titan, in a comparative planetology perspective with the Earth as reference. Our approach is based on the calculation of solutional denudation rates and allow inference of formation timescales for topographic depressions developed by chemical erosion on both planetary bodies. The model depends on the solubility of solids in liquids, the density of solids and liquids, and the average annual net rainfall rates. We compute and compare the denudation rates of pure solid organics in liquid hydrocarbons and of minerals in liquid water over Titan and Earth timescales. We then investigate the denudation rates of a superficial organic layer in liquid methane over one Titan year. At this timescale, such a layer on Titan would behave like salts or carbonates on Earth depending on its composition, which means that dissolution processes would likely occur but would be 30 times slower on Titan compared to the Earth due to the seasonality of precipitation. Assuming an average depth of 100 m for Titan's lacustrine depressions, these could have developed in a few tens of millions of years at polar latitudes higher than 70°N and S, and a few hundreds of million years at lower polar latitudes. The ages determined are consistent with the youth of the surface (<1 Gyr) and the repartition of dissolution-related landforms on Titan.

Published: 05 June 2015
Detection of sodium-salt-rich ice grains emitted from the plume of the Saturnian moon Enceladus suggests that the grains formed as frozen droplets from a liquid water reservoir that is, or has been, in contact with rock. Gravitational field measurements suggest a regional south polar subsurface ocean of about 10 kilometres thickness located beneath an ice crust 30 to 40 kilometres thick. These findings imply rock–water interactions in regions surrounding the core of Enceladus. The resulting chemical 'footprints' are expected to be preserved in the liquid and subsequently transported upwards to the near-surface plume sources, where they eventually would be ejected and could be measured by a spacecraft. Here we report an analysis of silicon-rich, nanometre-sized dust particles (so-called stream particles) that stand out from the water-ice-dominated objects characteristic of Saturn. We interpret these grains as nanometre-sized SiO2 (silica) particles, initially embedded in icy grains emitted from Enceladus' subsurface waters and released by sputter erosion in Saturn's E ring. The composition and the limited size range (2 to 8 nanometres in radius) of stream particles indicate ongoing high-temperature (>90 °C) hydrothermal reactions associated with global-scale geothermal activity that quickly transports hydrothermal products from the ocean floor at a depth of at least 40 kilometres up to the plume of Enceladus.
Published: 12 March 2015
Published online 2 February 2015

The internal ocean of Enceladus can be expected to present conditions favorable to the trapping of volatiles in clathrates. This process could influence the eventual composition of the ocean and therefore of the plumes emitted by the south polar region. Here we used a statistical thermodynamic model to assess which species detected in the plumes by the Cassini-INMS experiment are trapped in clathrates. We treated Enceladus' internal ocean as a terrestrial subglacial lake with a mixture of dissolved volatiles indicated by plume gas measurements. We find that the conditions for clathrate formation are met in this ocean, except above 20 km or in hypothetical hot spots. The formation of multiple guest clathrates depletes methane below plume levels, suggesting that clathrates eventually dissociate (releasing methane) in the fissure that connects the ocean to the surface or that another mechanism (such as hydrothermal reactions) is compensating by adding methane into the ocean.

Published: 26 February 2015
Titan's middle atmosphere is currently experiencing a rapid change of season after northern spring arrived in 2009 (refs 1, 2). A large cloud was observed for the first time above Titan's southern pole in May 2012, at an altitude of 300 kilometres. A temperature maximum was previously observed there, and condensation was not expected for any of Titan's atmospheric gases. Here we report that this cloud is composed of micrometre-sized particles of frozen hydrogen cyanide (HCN ice). The presence of HCN particles at this altitude, together with temperature determinations from mid-infrared observations, indicate a dramatic cooling of Titan's atmosphere inside the winter polar vortex in early 2012. Such cooling is in contrast to previously measured high-altitude warming in the polar vortex, and temperatures are a hundred degrees colder than predicted by circulation models. These results show that post-equinox cooling at the winter pole of Titan is much more efficient than previously thought.
Published: 03 October 2014
Unedited accepted article published online 11 September 2014.
Final edit of article will appear later.

On September 26th, 2005, Cassini conducted its only close targeted flyby of Saturn's small, irregularly shaped moon Hyperion. Approximately 6 minutes before the closest approach, the Electron spectrometer (ELS), part of the Cassini Plasma Spectrometer (CAPS) detected a field-aligned electron population originating from the direction of the moon's surface. Plasma wave activity detected by the Radio and Plasma Wave (RPWS) instrument suggests electron beam activity. A dropout in energetic electrons was observed by both CAPS-ELS and the Magnetospheric Imaging Instrument Low Energy Magnetospheric Measurement System (MIMI-LEMMS), indicating that the moon and the spacecraft were magnetically connected when the field-aligned electron population was observed. We show that this constitutes a remote detection of a strongly negative (~ -200 V) surface potential on Hyperion, consistent with the predicted surface potential in regions near the solar terminator.

Published: 12 September 2014
Hundreds of lakes and a few seas of liquid hydrocarbons have been observed by the Cassini spacecraft to cover the polar regions of Titan. A significant fraction of these lakes or seas could possibly be interconnected with subsurface liquid reservoirs of alkanes. In this paper, we investigate the interplay that would happen between a reservoir of liquid hydrocarbons located in Titan's subsurface and a hypothetical clathrate reservoir that progressively forms if the liquid mixture diffuses throughout a preexisting porous icy layer. To do so, we use a statistical-thermodynamic model in order to compute the composition of the clathrate reservoir that forms as a result of the progressive entrapping of the liquid mixture. This study shows that clathrate formation strongly fractionates the molecules between the liquid and the solid phases. Depending on whether the structures I or II clathrate forms, the present model predicts that the liquid reservoirs would be mainly composed of either propane or ethane, respectively. The other molecules present in the liquid are trapped in clathrates. Any river or lake emanating from subsurface liquid reservoirs that significantly interacted with clathrate reservoirs should present such composition. On the other hand, lakes and rivers sourced by precipitation should contain higher fractions of methane and nitrogen, as well as minor traces of argon and carbon monoxide.
Published: 02 August 2014
The small and active Saturnian moon Enceladus is one of the primary targets of the Cassini mission. We determined the quadrupole gravity field of Enceladus and its hemispherical asymmetry using Doppler data from three spacecraft flybys. Our results indicate the presence of a negative mass anomaly in the south-polar region, largely compensated by a positive subsurface anomaly compatible with the presence of a regional subsurface sea at depths of 30 to 40 kilometers and extending up to south latitudes of about 50°. The estimated values for the largest quadrupole harmonic coefficients (106J2 = 5435.2 ± 34.9, 106C22 = 1549.8 ± 15.6, 1 sigma) and their ratio (J2/C22 = 3.51 ± 0.05) indicate that the body deviates mildly from hydrostatic equilibrium. The moment of inertia is around 0.335MR2, where M is the mass and R is the radius, suggesting a differentiated body with a low-density core.
Published: 04 April 2014
We construct the depth profile – the bathymetry – of Titan's large sea Ligeia Mare from Cassini RADAR data collected during the 23 May 2013 (T91) nadir-looking altimetry flyby. We find the greatest depth to be about 160 m and a seabed slope that is gentler toward the northern shore, consistent with previously imaged shoreline morphologies. Low radio signal attenuation through the sea demonstrates that the liquid, for which we determine a loss tangent of 3 ± 1∙10−5, is remarkably transparent, requiring a nearly pure methane-ethane composition, and further that microwave absorbing hydrocarbons, nitriles, and suspended particles be limited to less than the order of 0.1% of the liquid volume. Presence of nitrogen in the ethane-methane sea, expected based on its solubility and dominance in the atmosphere, is consistent with the low attenuation, but that of substantial dissolved polar species or suspended scatterers is not.
Published: 16 March 2014
During the six Cassini Titan flybys T83-T88 (May 2012 to November 2012) the electron density in the ionospheric peak region, as measured by the radio and plasma wave science instrument/Langmuir probe, has increased significantly, by 15-30%, compared to previous average. These measurements suggest that a long-term change has occurred in the ionosphere of Titan, likely caused by the rise to the new solar maximum with increased EUV fluxes. We compare measurements from TA, TB, and T5, from the declining phase of solar cycle 23 to the recent T83-T88 measurements during cycle 24, since the solar irradiances from those two intervals are comparable. The peak electron densities normalized to a common solar zenith angle Nnorm from those two groups of flybys are comparable but increased compared to the solar minimum flybys (T16-T71). The integrated solar irradiance over the wavelengths 1-80nm, i.e., the solar energy flux, Fe, correlates well with the observed ionospheric peak density values. Chapman layer theory predicts that Nnorm ~ Fek, with k=0.5. We find observationally that the exponent k=0.54ý0.18. Hence, the observations are in good agreement with theory despite the fact that many assumptions in Chapman theory are violated. This is also in good agreement with a similar study by Girazian and Withers (2013) on the ionosphere of Mars. We use this power law to estimate the peak electron density at the subsolar point of Titan during solar maximum conditions and find it to be about 6500cm-3, i.e., 85-160% more than has been measured during the entire Cassini mission.
Published: 14 August 2013
In this paper, we analyze the strong unidentified emission near 3.28 micron in Titan's upper daytime atmosphere recently discovered by Dinelli et al. We have studied it by using the NASA Ames PAH IR Spectroscopic Database. The polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), after absorbing UV solar radiation, are able to emit strongly near 3.3 micron. By using current models for the redistribution of the absorbed UV energy, we have explained the observed spectral feature and have derived the vertical distribution of PAHs abundances in Titan's upper atmosphere. PAHs have been found to be present in large concentrations, about 2-3×104 particles cm-3. The identified PAHs have 9-96 carbons, with a concentration-weighted average of 34 carbons. The mean mass is ~430 amu; the mean area is about 0.53 nm2; they are formed by 10-11 rings on average, and about one-third of them contain nitrogen atoms. Recently, benzene together with light aromatic species as well as small concentrations of heavy positive and negative ions have been detected in Titan's upper atmosphere. We suggest that the large concentrations of PAHs found here are the neutral counterpart of those positive and negative ions, which hence supports the theory that the origin of Titan main haze layer is located in the upper atmosphere.
Published: 06 June 2013
17-Oct-2019 02:25 UT

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