Unusual molecule found in atmosphere on Saturn’s moon Titan

Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, is the only moon in our solar system that has a thick atmosphere. It’s four times denser than Earth’s. And now, scientists have discovered a molecule in it that has never been found in any other atmosphere.

These six infrared images of Saturn's moon Titan were captured using NASA's Cassini spacecraft.

© Univ. of Ariz./Univ. of Nantes/JPL-Caltech/NASA
These six infrared images of Saturn’s moon Titan were captured using NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.

The particle is called cyclopropenylidene, or C3H2, and it’s made of carbon and hydrogen. This simple carbon-based molecule could be a precursor that contributes to chemical reactions that may create complex compounds. And those compounds could be the basis for potential life on Titan.


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The molecule was first noticed as researchers used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array of telescopes in Chile. This radio telescope observatory captures a range of light signatures, which revealed the molecule among the unique chemistry of Titan’s atmosphere.

The study published earlier this month in the Astronomical Journal.

“When I realized I was looking at cyclopropenylidene, my first thought was, ‘Well, this is really unexpected,'” said lead study author Conor Nixon, planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a statement.

Cyclopropenylidene has been detected elsewhere across our galaxy, mainly in molecular clouds of gas and dust including the Taurus Molecular Cloud. This cloud, where stars are born, is located 400 light-years away in the Taurus constellation. In these clouds, temperatures are too cold for many chemical reactions to occur.

diagram: Cyclopropenylidene has now been detected only in the Taurus Molecular Cloud and in the atmosphere of Titan.

© Conor Nixon/NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
Cyclopropenylidene has now been detected only in the Taurus Molecular Cloud and in the atmosphere of Titan.

But finding it in an atmosphere is a different story. This molecule can react easily when it collides with others to form something new. The researchers were likely able to spot it because they were looking through the upper layers of Titan’s atmosphere, where the molecule has fewer gases it can interact with.

“Titan is unique in our solar system,” Nixon said. “It has proved to be a treasure trove of new molecules.”

Cyclopropenylidene is the second cyclic or closed-loop molecule detected at Titan; the first was benzene in 2003. Benzene is an organic chemical compound composed of carbon and hydrogen atoms. On Earth, benzene is found in crude oil, is used as an industrial chemical and occurs naturally in the wake of volcanoes and forest fires.

Cyclic molecules are crucial because they form the backbone rings for the nucleobases of DNA, according to NASA.

“The cyclic nature of them opens up this extra branch of chemistry that allows you to build these biologically important molecules,” said study coauthor Alexander Thelen, an astrobiologist at Goddard, in a statement.

When the researchers discovered cyclopropenylidene in Titan’s atmosphere, they looked over data captured by NASA’s Cassini mission. The spacecraft performed 127 close flybys of Titan between 2004 and 2017. Cassini’s mass spectrometer detected a chemical signature of the same molecule, the researchers found.

“It’s a very weird little molecule, so it’s not going be the kind you

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Join Education Lab for a Live Q&A about this unusual school year

Michelle Baruchman

The new school year has been underway for districts in Washington state for a few weeks now. Along with it come the usual concerns — understanding assignments, studying for standardized tests, preparing for the next stage after graduation.

But this year has also brought a new set of challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic. Most districts started the school online, and a recent uptick in infections has delayed plans for reopening.

That means students are also grappling with how to stay in touch with friends they don’t get to see in class, create a work environment in the same place they eat or sleep, and cope with hours of online instruction.

Education Lab is bringing together a group of experts on Wednesday, Oct. 21, at noon to give students tips and strategies to help make this unusual year a little easier.

Abigail Brittle is a student in the Lake Washington School District. She is also an actress known for the TV series “Schooled” on ABC and “Everything Sucks!” on Netflix as well as the short film “In Her Demons.”

Lizz Dexter-Mazza is a certified dialectical behavior therapist and co-author of a social-emotional learning curriculum for middle and high school students. Dr. Dexter-Mazza is also a licensed psychologist and provides individual therapy to adolescents and young adults in Seattle.

Ritika Khanal is a junior at Mountlake Terrace High School. She serves as the op-ed editor of The Hawkeye, her school’s publication. She is also visually impaired. In addition to writing, she loves immersing herself in books and seeing the world from others’ perspectives.

Ellen Sklanka is a professional organizer and the founder of Renewal Organizing Solutions. She specializes in creating productivity solutions for children, young adults and students.

Michelle Baruchman and Jenn Smith, engagement editors for The Seattle Times’ Education Lab, will moderate the discussion.

To register, go to st.news/studentpanel2020. To submit questions, go to st.news/studentpanelask or ask a question below.

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South Africa’s unusual electrical plugs, sockets to be retired

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If you’ve ever traveled to South Africa and tried to use your multi-country adapter to recharge your phone or laptop, you may have been surprised that your adapter could not fit into the country’s unique sockets.

South Africa is now putting the electrical plugs and sockets the nation has relied on for generations on the road to retirement. The plugs, which feature three large pins configured in a triangle, are giving way to a compact hexagonal three-pin design, with sockets following suit.

The new plug and socket, which is based on the latest international standard, accommodates the European-type two-pin plugs on cellphone chargers and small appliances, as well as a two-pin plug based on a German design that comes attached to most power tools imported into the country.

Though South Africa has required buildings built since 2018 to have so-called 164-2 type sockets (the number designates the national standard for the new plug and socket type), the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) recently updated the standard to introduce warnings on adapters not permitted to be plugged into one another in order to avoid straining the socket.

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A proliferation of smartphones, tablets, and small appliances that rely on the two-pin European plug, combined with the need by South Africans to plug their devices into outlets designed for the traditional large-pin plugs (a so-called 164-1 type) found in millions of homes and offices nationwide, fuels a reliance on adapters that raises the risk of short circuiting, fire, and damage to devices.

“With the array of appliances and devices that have become commonplace in today’s world, it is critical to ensure that the plugs and sockets are also changing to accommodate the more compact designs of plugs,” Jodi Scholtz, lead administrator of SABS, said in a statement that elaborates on the update.

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Old vs New

The ubiquity of 164-1 type sockets together with a deluge of two-pin devices results in the use of “adapters-on-adapters” in sockets across South Africa and poses a danger to consumers, she explained.

Adapter fatigue

With its ability to accommodate the European-style plugs, the new South African socket will cut down on the number of adapters that people need to power their devices. Unlike its European cousin, the new South African plug adds a third pin to satisfy a national mandate that sockets have protection for earth leakage, which reduces the risk of shock by detecting stray voltage.

“The new standard will not eliminate the use of adaptors, however it will reduce the need and enable safer use of them,” Scholtz told Quartz Africa. “Most foreign visitors will still need to use their adaptors to have devices work, and sockets will be able to accommodate the old type of plugs.”

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South Africa’s updated wall socket

The 164-2 plug and socket incorporate safety by design. A pocket in the socket prevents consumers from touching a live pin during insertion. To prevent adapter

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