Space

September 30, 2013

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft finds ingredient of household plastic in space

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has detected propylene, a chemical used to make food-storage containers, car bumpers and other consumer products, on Saturn’s moon Titan.

This is the first definitive detection of the plastic ingredient on any moon or planet, other than Earth.
A small amount of propylene was identified in Titan’s lower atmosphere by Cassini’s Composite Infrared Spectrometer. This instrument measures the infrared light, or heat radiation, emitted from Saturn and its moons in much the same way our hands feel the warmth of a fire.

Propylene is the first molecule to be discovered on Titan using CIRS. By isolating the same signal at various altitudes within the lower atmosphere, researchers identified the chemical with a high degree of confidence. Details are presented in a paper in the Sept. 30 edition of the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“This chemical is all around us in everyday life, strung together in long chains to form a plastic called polypropylene,” said Conor Nixon, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and lead author of the paper. “That plastic container at the grocery store with the recycling code 5 on the bottom — that’s polypropylene.”

CIRS can identify a particular gas glowing in the lower layers of the atmosphere from its unique thermal fingerprint. The challenge is to isolate this one signature from the signals of all other gases around it.

The detection of the chemical fills in a mysterious gap in Titan observations that dates back to NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft and the first-ever close flyby of this moon in 1980.

Voyager identified many of the gases in Titan’s hazy brownish atmosphere as hydrocarbons, the chemicals that primarily make up petroleum and other fossil fuels on Earth.

On Titan, hydrocarbons form after sunlight breaks apart methane, the second-most plentiful gas in that atmosphere. The newly freed fragments can link up to form chains with two, three or more carbons. The family of chemicals with two carbons includes the flammable gas ethane. Propane, a common fuel for portable stoves, belongs to the three-carbon family.

Voyager detected all members of the one- and two-carbon families in Titan’s atmosphere. From the three-carbon family, the spacecraft found propane, the heaviest member, and propyne, one of the lightest members. But the middle chemicals, one of which is propylene, were missing.

As researchers continued to discover more and more chemicals in Titan’s atmosphere using ground- and space-based instruments, propylene was one that remained elusive. It was finally found as a result of more detailed analysis of the CIRS data.

“This measurement was very difficult to make because propylene’s weak signature is crowded by related chemicals with much stronger signals,” said Michael Flasar, Goddard scientist and principal investigator for CIRS. “This success boosts our confidence that we will find still more chemicals long hidden in Titan’s atmosphere.”

Cassini’s mass spectrometer, a device that looks at the composition of Titan’s atmosphere, had hinted earlier that propylene might be present in the upper atmosphere. However, a positive identification had not been made.

“I am always excited when scientists discover a molecule that has never been observed before in an atmosphere,” said Scott Edgington, Cassini’s deputy project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. “This new piece of the puzzle will provide an additional test of how well we understand the chemical zoo that makes up Titan’s atmosphere.”

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The CIRS team is based at Goddard.




All of this week's top headlines to your email every Friday.


 
 

 
Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s WISE spacecraft discovers most luminous galaxy in universe

Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech This artist’s concept depicts the current record holder for the most luminous galaxy in the universe. The galaxy, WISE J224607.57-052635.0, is erupting with light equal to more than 300 ...
 
 

Air Force launches hush-hush mini-shuttle into space

A mysterious space plane rocketed into orbit May 20, carrying no crew but a full load of technology experiments. The Air Force launched its unmanned mini-shuttle late morning, May 20. An Atlas V rocket lifted it up and out over the Atlantic. This is the fourth flight for the military research program, which is shrouded...
 
 
Image courtesy NASA TV

Critical NASA research returns to Earth aboard U.S. SpaceX Dragon spacecraft

Image courtesy NASA TV The SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft was released from the International Space Station’s robotic arm at 7:04 a.m., EDT, May 21. The capsule then performed a series of departure burns and maneuvers to ...
 

 

NASA, Canadian agency renew agreement to reduce aviation icing risks

On hand to sign the renewal agreement May 21 at the NRC offices in Ottawa, Ontario, were Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator of NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate in Washington, and Ian Potter, the NRC’s vice-president of engineering. “The combined efforts of our two agencies will help solve some of the most difficult and challenging weather-related...
 
 
ULA photograph

Space and Missile Systems Center successfully launches the AFSPC-5 mission

ULA photograph An Atlas V rocket successfully launches the AFSPC-5 mission from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., May 20, 2015.   The Air Force and its mission partners successfully launched the AFSPC-5 mission aboar...
 
 

NASA’s CubeSat initiative aids in testing of technology for solar sails in space

With help from NASA, a small research satellite to test technology for in-space solar propulsion launched into space May 20 aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., as part of the agency’s CubeSat Launch Initiative. The Atlas V sent the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B space plane on its fourth mission,...
 




0 Comments


Be the first to comment!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>