A plastic ingredient was discovered on Saturn’s moon Titan by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. The probe found a chemical essential for creating plastic on Earth.
Cassini discovered propylene in Titan’s atmosphere. The compound is key to creating plastic containers, car bumpers, and several other everyday items.
Scientists discovered the compound using Cassini’s composite infrared spectrometer (CIRS) instrument. It measures infrared light Saturn and its moon give off.
The new find helped solve lingering questions scientists had about Titan’s atmosphere. Voyager 1 was the first spacecraft to fly close to the moon. When the flyby happened in 1980, the probe recognized gasses in the moon’s atmosphere as hydrocarbons.
Connor Nixon, a NASA scientist and lead author of the paper about the new research, stated:
“The chemical is all around us in everyday life, strung together in long chains to form a plastic called polypropylene. That plastic container at the grocery store with the recycling code 5 on the bottom — that’s polypropylene.”
Despite the possible implications, we shouldn’t expect to see Titan containers on store shelves anytime soon. Cassini found just a few parts per billion of propylene, which isn’t nearly enough to make what we use on Earth.
When it ran around, Voyager detected two chemicals in Titan’s atmosphere that were close to propylene — propane and propyne. However, its instruments weren’t advanced enough to detect the plastic substance.
Conor Nixon with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, spoke about the discovery and Titan’s atmosphere, saying, “Because there’s no free oxygen on Titan, it means this organic chemistry can just keep running and running and running like a huge natural experiment, and it can keep building more and more complex chemicals.”
Propylene compounds on Earth are normally extracted from petroleum and processed into plastic compounds. Cassini has been orbiting around Saturn since July 2004. The probe’s mission is to help scientists understand Saturn and its many moons. It will remain in operation until 2017 when Cassini will meet its end in Saturn’s atmosphere.
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