NASA Finds Plastic Ingredient on Saturn’s Moon?

Plastic ingredient found on Saturn's moon

NASA has found traces of propylene, the chemical used to make Tupperware, on Saturn’s moon.

This marks the first time that this chemical has been detected out in space. It was found on the moon named Titan and now constitutes the hazy atmosphere surrounding Saturn’s largest moon.

Titan is one of 53 moons that we know to be orbiting Saturn. As the largest, Titan carries an impressive equatorial radius of 1, 600 miles and a thick atmosphere impermeable by any current camera or telescope. Its surface temperature is a bone-chilling -178 degrees Celsius (-289 degrees Fahrenheit), and its orbit is 16 days in total due to Titan being a distance of 745,000 miles from its planet. It ranks as the second largest moon in our solar system, with Jupiter’s Ganymede moon ranking in first by 62 miles more in diameter.

What NASA has dubbed “a small amount of propylene” was found by their Cassini spacecraft in much the same way as we detect the feeling of heat that fire generates. Cassini’s Composite Infrared Spectrometer (CIRS) measures infrared light, which is radiation given off by heat, emitted from Saturn and the orbiting moons. Not only is this the first time that propylene has been found in space, but this is also the first molecule located on Titan using the CIRS. Researchers working with the spacecraft have isolated the same signal at differing altitudes within the region of the lower atmosphere and are confident of the positive identification of propylene. The researchers have the details of this recent finding in the September 30 edition of the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The intense cold temperature found on celestial bodies that are at a greater distance from the sun, such as Titan, creates an atmosphere of interest to the NASA scientists. The chemical composition found in these freezing atmospheres could be very similar to the earth’s atmosphere during its ancient days. Both earth and Titan are mostly composed of nitrogen. Scientists also predict that Titan’s atmosphere may have a greater percentage of ethane and methane. The thickness of the “smog” could be so much these “gasoline-like” fluids fall like rain onto the moon. NASA’s website also states that due to the organic qualities of some chemicals found in Titan’s atmosphere, the great moon could be home some to some form of life.

Propylene may be famous on earth as one of the core building blocks of plastic’s success, but it is one of the simplest known organic compounds. Made by a chain of three carbons, it is used as a raw material to create many man-made products here on earth. Some species of trees do create this molecule although a large amount of propylene (otherwise known as propene) is here now as a byproduct of fossil fuel extraction processes, namely oil refining, and as a combustion product as a result of forest fires. Propylene can be easily identified in our everyday life as well. Conor Nixon, planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and lead author of the paper says, “This chemical is all around us in everyday life, strung together in long chains to form a plastic called polypropylene.” Polypropylene is found at the local grocery store with the recycling code 5.

Titan’s mysterious atmosphere is still hazy for NASA scientists and the positive detection and identification of the plastic ingredient could be the first among many for this Cassini-Huygens mission.

Jessica Rosslee
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One Response to "NASA Finds Plastic Ingredient on Saturn’s Moon?"

  1. jeanr7   October 2, 2013 at 9:12 am

    So that’s where all those old Tupperware containers of the ’70’s ended up!

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