Titan's cloud seasonal activity from winter to spring with Cassini/VIMS

S. Rodriguez, S. Le Mouélic, P. Rannou, C. Sotin, Robert H. Brown, J. W. Barnes, Caitlin Griffith, J. Burgalat, K. H. Baines, B. J. Buratti, R. N. Clark, P. D. Nicholson

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Abstract

Since Saturn orbital insertion in July 2004, the Cassini orbiter has been observing Titan throughout most of the northern winter season (October 2002-August 2009) and the beginning of spring, allowing a detailed monitoring of Titan's cloud coverage at high spatial resolution with close flybys on a monthly basis. This study reports on the analysis of all the near-infrared images of Titan's clouds acquired by the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) during 67 targeted flybys of Titan between July 2004 and April 2010.The VIMS observations show numerous sporadic clouds at southern high and mid-latitudes, rare clouds in the equatorial region, and reveal a long-lived cloud cap above the north pole, ubiquitous poleward of 60°N. These observations allow us to follow the evolution of the cloud coverage during almost a 6-year period including the equinox, and greatly help to further constrain global circulation models (GCMs). After 4. years of regular outbursts observed by Cassini between 2004 and 2008, southern polar cloud activity started declining, and completely ceased 1. year before spring equinox. The extensive cloud system over the north pole, stable between 2004 and 2008, progressively fractionated and vanished as Titan entered into northern spring. At southern mid-latitudes, clouds were continuously observed throughout the VIMS observing period, even after equinox, in a latitude band between 30°S and 60°S. During the whole period of observation, only a dozen clouds were observed closer to the equator, though they were slightly more frequent as equinox approached. We also investigated the distribution of clouds with longitude. We found that southern polar clouds, before disappearing in mid-2008, were systematically concentrated in the leading hemisphere of Titan, in particular above and to the east of Ontario Lacus, the largest reservoir of hydrocarbons in the area. Clouds are also non-homogeneously distributed with longitude at southern mid-latitudes. The n= 2-mode wave pattern of the distribution, observed since 2003 by Earth-based telescopes and confirmed by our Cassini observations, may be attributed to Saturn's tides. Although the latitudinal distribution of clouds is now relatively well reproduced and understood by the GCMs, the non-homogeneous longitudinal distributions and the evolution of the cloud coverage with seasons still need investigation. If the observation of a few single clouds at the tropics and at northern mid-latitudes late in winter and at the start of spring cannot be further interpreted for the moment, the obvious shutdown of the cloud activity at Titan's poles provides clear signs of the onset of the general circulation turnover that is expected to accompany the beginning of Titan's northern spring. According to our GCM, the persistence of clouds at certain latitudes rather suggests a 'sudden' shift in near future of the meteorology into the more illuminated hemisphere. Finally, the observed seasonal change in cloud activity occurred with a significant time lag that is not predicted by our model. This may be due to an overall methane humidity at Titan's surface higher than previously expected.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)89-110
Number of pages22
JournalIcarus
Volume216
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - Nov 2011

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Keywords

  • Meteorology
  • Satellites, Atmospheres
  • Titan

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Space and Planetary Science
  • Astronomy and Astrophysics

Cite this

Rodriguez, S., Le Mouélic, S., Rannou, P., Sotin, C., Brown, R. H., Barnes, J. W., Griffith, C., Burgalat, J., Baines, K. H., Buratti, B. J., Clark, R. N., & Nicholson, P. D. (2011). Titan's cloud seasonal activity from winter to spring with Cassini/VIMS. Icarus, 216(1), 89-110. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.icarus.2011.07.031