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Concept: Titan


Recent simulations have indicated that vinyl cyanide is the best candidate molecule for the formation of cell membranes/vesicle structures in Titan’s hydrocarbon-rich lakes and seas. Although the existence of vinyl cyanide (C2H3CN) on Titan was previously inferred using Cassini mass spectrometry, a definitive detection has been lacking until now. We report the first spectroscopic detection of vinyl cyanide in Titan’s atmosphere, obtained using archival data from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), collected from February to May 2014. We detect the three strongest rotational lines of C2H3CN in the frequency range of 230 to 232 GHz, each with >4σ confidence. Radiative transfer modeling suggests that most of the C2H3CN emission originates at altitudes of ≳200 km, in agreement with recent photochemical models. The vertical column densities implied by our best-fitting models lie in the range of 3.7 × 10(13) to 1.4 × 10(14) cm(-2). The corresponding production rate of vinyl cyanide and its saturation mole fraction imply the availability of sufficient dissolved material to form ~10(7) cell membranes/cm(3) in Titan’s sea Ligeia Mare.

Concepts: Model, Spectroscopy, Titan, Extraterrestrial life, Sea, Electromagnetic radiation, Physical chemistry, Frequency


The chemistry of hydrogen cyanide (HCN) is believed to be central to the origin of life question. Contradictions between Cassini-Huygens mission measurements of the atmosphere and the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan suggest that HCN-based polymers may have formed on the surface from products of atmospheric chemistry. This makes Titan a valuable “natural laboratory” for exploring potential nonterrestrial forms of prebiotic chemistry. We have used theoretical calculations to investigate the chain conformations of polyimine (pI), a polymer identified as one major component of polymerized HCN in laboratory experiments. Thanks to its flexible backbone, the polymer can exist in several different polymorphs, which are relatively close in energy. The electronic and structural variability among them is extraordinary. The band gap changes over a 3-eV range when moving from a planar sheet-like structure to increasingly coiled conformations. The primary photon absorption is predicted to occur in a window of relative transparency in Titan’s atmosphere, indicating that pI could be photochemically active and drive chemistry on the surface. The thermodynamics for adding and removing HCN from pI under Titan conditions suggests that such dynamics is plausible, provided that catalysis or photochemistry is available to sufficiently lower reaction barriers. We speculate that the directionality of pI’s intermolecular and intramolecular =N-H(…)N hydrogen bonds may drive the formation of partially ordered structures, some of which may synergize with photon absorption and act catalytically. Future detailed studies on proposed mechanisms and the solubility and density of the polymers will aid in the design of future missions to Titan.

Concepts: Hydrogen cyanide, Experiment, DNA, Atom, Atmosphere, Titan, Saturn, Chemistry


The detection of silica-rich dust particles, as an indication for ongoing hydrothermal activity, and the presence of water and organic molecules in the plume of Enceladus, have made Saturn’s icy moon a hot spot in the search for potential extraterrestrial life. Methanogenic archaea are among the organisms that could potentially thrive under the predicted conditions on Enceladus, considering that both molecular hydrogen (H2) and methane (CH4) have been detected in the plume. Here we show that a methanogenic archaeon, Methanothermococcus okinawensis, can produce CH4under physicochemical conditions extrapolated for Enceladus. Up to 72% carbon dioxide to CH4conversion is reached at 50 bar in the presence of potential inhibitors. Furthermore, kinetic and thermodynamic computations of low-temperature serpentinization indicate that there may be sufficient H2gas production to serve as a substrate for CH4production on Enceladus. We conclude that some of the CH4detected in the plume of Enceladus might, in principle, be produced by methanogens.

Concepts: Titan, Atom, Enceladus, Jupiter, Methanogen, Carbon, Oxygen, Methane


Saturn’s moon Enceladus has an ice-covered ocean; a plume of material erupts from cracks in the ice. The plume contains chemical signatures of water-rock interaction between the ocean and a rocky core. We used the Ion Neutral Mass Spectrometer onboard the Cassini spacecraft to detect molecular hydrogen in the plume. By using the instrument’s open-source mode, background processes of hydrogen production in the instrument were minimized and quantified, enabling the identification of a statistically significant signal of hydrogen native to Enceladus. We find that the most plausible source of this hydrogen is ongoing hydrothermal reactions of rock containing reduced minerals and organic materials. The relatively high hydrogen abundance in the plume signals thermodynamic disequilibrium that favors the formation of methane from CO2 in Enceladus' ocean.

Concepts: Iapetus, Oxygen, Carbon, Titan, Saturn, Methane, Jupiter, Hydrogen


Methane emissions from natural gas delivery and end use must be quantified to evaluate the environmental impacts of natural gas and to develop and assess the efficacy of emission reduction strategies. We report natural gas emission rates for 1 y in the urban region of Boston, using a comprehensive atmospheric measurement and modeling framework. Continuous methane observations from four stations are combined with a high-resolution transport model to quantify the regional average emission flux, 18.5 ± 3.7 (95% confidence interval) g CH4⋅m(-2)⋅y(-1). Simultaneous observations of atmospheric ethane, compared with the ethane-to-methane ratio in the pipeline gas delivered to the region, demonstrate that natural gas accounted for ∼60-100% of methane emissions, depending on season. Using government statistics and geospatial data on natural gas use, we find the average fractional loss rate to the atmosphere from all downstream components of the natural gas system, including transmission, distribution, and end use, was 2.7 ± 0.6% in the Boston urban region, with little seasonal variability. This fraction is notably higher than the 1.1% implied by the most closely comparable emission inventory.

Concepts: Titan, Hydrocarbon, Carbon dioxide, Petroleum, Saturn, Methane, Atmosphere, Natural gas


The rate at which the global average surface temperature is increasing has slowed down since the end of the last century. This study investigates whether this warming hiatus results from a change in the well-known greenhouse effect. Using long-term, reliable, and consistent observational data from the Earth’s surface and the top of the atmosphere (TOA), two monthly gridded atmospheric and surface greenhouse effect parameters (Ga and Gs) are estimated to represent the radiative warming effects of the atmosphere and the surface in the infrared range from 1979 to 2014. The atmospheric and surface greenhouse effect over the tropical monsoon-prone regions is found to contribute substantially to the global total. Furthermore, the downward tendency of cloud activity leads to a greenhouse effect hiatus after the early 1990 s, prior to the warming pause. Additionally, this pause in the greenhouse effect is mostly caused by the high number of La Niña events between 1991 and 2014. A strong La Niña indicates suppressed convection in the tropical central Pacific that reduces atmospheric water vapor content and cloud volume. This significantly weakened regional greenhouse effect offsets the enhanced warming influence in other places and decelerates the rising global greenhouse effect. This work suggests that the greenhouse effect hiatus can be served as an additional factor to cause the recent global warming slowdown.

Concepts: Greenhouse gas, Black body, Precipitation, Titan, Atmosphere, Infrared, Venus, Earth


Single-point failures of the natural gas infrastructure can hamper deliberate methane emission control strategies designed to mitigate climate change. The 23 October 2015 blowout of a well connected to the Aliso Canyon underground storage facility in California resulted in a massive release of natural gas. Analysis of methane (CH4) and ethane (C2H6) data from dozens of plume transects from 13 research aircraft flights between 7 Nov 2015 and 13 Feb 2016 shows atmospheric leak rates of up to 60 metric tonnes of CH4 and 4.5 metric tonnes of C2H6 per hour. At its peak this blowout effectively doubled the CH4 emission rate of the entire Los Angeles Basin, and in total released 97,100 metric tonnes of methane to the atmosphere.

Concepts: Atmosphere, Greenhouse gas, Titan, Hydrocarbon, Ethane, Saturn, Natural gas, Methane


Observations made during the New Horizons flyby provide a detailed snapshot of the current state of Pluto’s atmosphere. Whereas the lower atmosphere (at altitudes of less than 200 kilometers) is consistent with ground-based stellar occultations, the upper atmosphere is much colder and more compact than indicated by pre-encounter models. Molecular nitrogen (N2) dominates the atmosphere (at altitudes of less than 1800 kilometers or so), whereas methane (CH4), acetylene (C2H2), ethylene (C2H4), and ethane (C2H6) are abundant minor species and likely feed the production of an extensive haze that encompasses Pluto. The cold upper atmosphere shuts off the anticipated enhanced-Jeans, hydrodynamic-like escape of Pluto’s atmosphere to space. It is unclear whether the current state of Pluto’s atmosphere is representative of its average state–over seasonal or geologic time scales.

Concepts: Acetylene, Titan, Earth, Saturn, Ethylene, Methane, Ethane, Pluto


Although current Hg emissions from industrial activities may be accurately monitored, evidence of past releases to the atmosphere must rely on one or more environmental proxies. We used Hg concentrations in tree cores collected from poplars and willows to investigate the historical changes of Hg emissions from a dredged sediment landfill and compared them to a nearby control location. Our results demonstrated the potential value of using dendrochemistry to record historical Hg emissions from past industrial activities.

Concepts: History, Photosynthesis, Titan, Mars, Mercury, Venus, Planet, Atmosphere


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.

Concepts: Titan, Oxygen, Local Interstellar Cloud, Jupiter, Interstellar medium, Cosmic dust, Saturn, Solar System