Titan’s plastic atmosphere

The Cassini spacecraft has shown that Saturn's moon Titan has an ingredient of plastic in its atmosphere.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Saturn’s moon Titan has an ingredient of plastic in its atmosphere.

New data from the Cassini spacecraft shows that the moon’s lower atmosphere contains molecules of propylene, which is used to make plastic containers and other products on Earth.

The propylene discovery came as no surprise to astronomers, who have been searching for the molecule in Titan’s atmosphere since the Voyager 1 spacecraft flew by the moon in 1980. The scientists had found other light and heavy carbon-based molecules on the moon but never this plasticlike one.

Astronomers, who report the findings September 30 in Astrophysical Journal Letters, say it is one of the first definitive detections of an ingredient for plastic found on any planet or moon other than Earth. 

photo of Ashley Yeager

Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

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