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Hydrocarbon Present on Saturn's Moon Hyperion

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Author Topic: Hydrocarbon Present on Saturn's Moon Hyperion  (Read 56 times)
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« on: August 04, 2007, 01:52:39 am »

Hydrocarbon Present on Saturn's Moon Hyperion
Posted Jul 5, 2007 by  franklin in Science

NASA's Cassini Spacecraft has finally released details about Saturn's moon Hyperion's surface. It turns out, Hyperion is filled with many craters which are filled with hydrocarbons.
When we think about hydrocarbons, we tend to relate it to the Earth. Surely, Earth contains hydrocarbons which are needed for life, but the question that scientists are asking today is whether hydrocarbons can be in fact found on other planets, moons, stars after a recent hydrocarbon discovery on Hyperion.

Hyperion is one of the largest irregular moons in the solar system. It is approximately 300 km across and its surface is absolutely odd-looking.

When the Cassini spacecraft passed by it in September 2005, scientists were able to find out the density of it: an astonishing 0.5 times that of water. If this is hard for you to grasp, think about the rocks. They are about 2-3 times as dense as water. Even ice is 0.9 times the density of water.

“The close flyby produced a tiny but measurable deflection of Cassini’s orbit. Therefore, the orbit determination, carried out by our Italian colleagues, allowed us to estimate the mass with fairly good accuracy,” said Cassini radio science deputy team leader Nicole Rappaport of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Combined with the determination of Hyperion’s volume from imaging data, this provided an accurate computation of its density.”

How can this be possible? One of the hypothesis out there states that Hyperion was actually in the way of other objects which in turn crashed right into it, rupturing the moon, creating cracks and fissures throughout it. Since, in this case, it would have a whole lot of holes, this would account for its very low density. In fact, this might be the lowest density object yet found in the solar system.

If something crashed into a denser body, it would blast material right from it. However, careful analysis of Hyperion's surface shows something totally different: craters were actually formed through compressing the surface. So, basically, the moon can absorb the impact better without disturbing the neighbouring terrain. In simple terms, whatever happens when you are punching a piece of Styrofoam happens on Hyperion.

Moreover, because the moon has very low gravity, the material that crashes into it and is ejected from the craters has a very good chance of completely escaping and not impacting its surface again. Thus, Hyperion's craters look rather sharp and less blanketed by debris compared to other bodies' craters found in space.

What is even more fascinating about this moon is that it contains water, carbon dioxide ice and dark material which fits in the profile of hydrocarbons.

"Of special interest is the presence on Hyperion of hydrocarbons--combinations of carbon and hydrogen atoms that are found in comets, meteorites, and the dust in our galaxy," said Dale Cruikshank, a planetary scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., and the paper's lead author. "These molecules, when embedded in ice and exposed to ultraviolet light, form new molecules of biological significance. This doesn't mean that we have found life, but it is a further indication that the basic chemistry needed for life is widespread in the universe."

Cassini's ultraviolet imaging spectrograph captured different compositional variations found on Hyperion's surface. After analyzing its surface, these instruments sent back data confirming that there is a presence of frozen water but it also discovered solid carbon dioxide also known as dry ice. Oddly enough, dry ice was mixed with the ordinary ice.

An image to your right shows the presence of dry ice and frozen water. Blue shows the maximum exposure of frozen water; red is the dry ice; magenta are regions of water and carbon dioxide; and yellow is a mix of carbon dioxide and yet unidentified material.

"Most of Hyperion's surface ice is a mix of frozen water and organic dust, but carbon dioxide ice is also prominent. The carbon dioxide is not pure, but is somehow chemically attached to other molecules," explained Cruikshank.

Scientists took a look at the previous data from other Saturn's moons, as well as Jupiter's moons Ganymede and Callisto and compared this data to the one retrieved from Hyperion. It points out that carbon dioxide molecule is "complexed" or attached to other surface material in many different ways.

"We think that ordinary carbon dioxide will evaporate from Saturn's moons over long periods of time," said Cruikshank, "but it appears to be much more stable when it is attached to other molecules."

Hyperion is known for its chaotic spin. It is also Saturn's eighth largest moon and orbits Saturn every 21 days.
You can find full research and analysis of Hyperion's surface in July 5 issue of Nature magazine.

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