Cassini’s latest find hints at more exciting discoveries to come.
One of Titan’s hydrocarbon lakes, as seen by Cassini’s radar.
An infrared spectrometer on the Cassini spacecraft now circling Saturn has detected for the first time the chemical compound propylene (also called propene) on a world beyond Earth.
It was suspected for a while that this compound would be present in the organic-rich atmosphere of Saturn’s large moon Titan, but it was difficult to detect, being crowded out by related chemical compounds with much stronger signals, according to Michael Flasar of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, principal investigator of the CIRS instrument that made the detection. Propylene is used in industrial processing on Earth as a building block to form polymerized propylene, or polypropylene—the basic ingredient of plastics used in everything from food containers to auto parts.
The discovery begs the question of what other intriguing finds await us on this exotic moon. Titan is the only moon known to have a significant atmosphere—denser even than our own, and thick enough that airplanes and helicopters have been proposed for exploring there. The air would not be breathable by humans, as it consists mostly of nitrogen, methane and trace amounts of ...