Cassini Probe Finds Plastic On Saturn’s Largest Moon

By Philip Ross on October 1, 2013 2:39 PM EDT

saturn
Titan, Saturn's largest moon, measures 3,200 miles across and is larger than the planet Mercury. Cassini recently discovered plastic in the form of polypropylene in its atmosphere. (Photo: Reuters)

While most of NASA plays hooky during the U.S. government shutdown, the space program's Cassini probe is still hard at work telling us more about the world beyond our own Earthly borders. The probe recently discovered polypropylene, the main ingredient in household plastic, on Titan, Saturn's largest moon. According to The BBC, this is the first time we've seen a plastic ingredient anywhere other than Earth.

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"That plastic container at the grocery store with the recycling code 5 and the letters PP on the bottom - that's polypropylene," Conor Nixon of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, the lead author of a paper about the discovery, told NBC News. "It's taken us 32 years, with a new spacecraft and a new instrument, to find it," he said.

NBC News reports that in 1980, NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft found similar hydrocarbons, the key ingredient in fossil fuels, but didn't uncover polypropylene. Using its composite infrared spectrometer, which measures infrared energy to determine thermal structure and composition, Cassini found traces of polypropylene in the moon's atmosphere - albeit just a few parts per billion.

Here on Earth, most polypropylene is made from petroleum and used to make a wide variety of consumer and industrial products. Stationary, plastic parts, lab equipment, reusable containers and certain textiles all contain polypropylene.

"This chemical is all around us in everyday life," Nixon told The BBC.

Titan is thought to be a prebiotic moon with plenty of organic stuff floating around atmosphere. According to Phys.org, Titan's smoggy atmosphere contains methane and ethane and other complex organic chemistry that could turn out to be the raw ingredients of life.

The same kind of light that drives biological chemistry on Earth's surface could also drive chemistry on Titan, even though Titan receives far less light from the sun and is much colder," said Murthy Gudipati, the lead author of a paper about Titan's atmosphere published earlier this year in Nature Communications. "Titan is not a sleeping giant in the lower atmosphere, but at least half awake in its chemical activity."

The unveiling of plastic in Titan's atmosphere isn't the first of Cassini's Titan discoveries. In 2012, the spacecraft found what looked like an underground ocean on Titan just 62 miles below the surface.  While the presence of water doesn't mean there's life there, Titan does have some interesting characteristics that could make it habitable.

Read more from iScience Times:

Huge Saturn Vortex: Cassini Probe Captures Swirling Storm [PHOTOS]

Cassini Finds Subsurface Ocean on Saturn Moon

Saturn Storm: Cassini Spacecraft Tracked Largest Vortex Seen in Solar System [VIDEO]

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