Cassini, the NASA spacecraft, has found propylene, a chemical commonly used to make plastic kitchen containers on Titan. Titan is Saturn's moon and the chemical was detected in the lower atmosphere. This is the first finding of propylene outside Earth.
NASA announced this exciting discovery on Sept. 30. Propylene was discovered using the spacecraft's composite infrared spectrometer (CIRS) which measures infrared light or heat radiation and can isolate particular gases by their unique thermal print.
Conor Nixon, a scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center said: "This 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."
NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft in the 1980s had already identified many of the gases in Titan's murky atmosphere as hydrocarbons, chemicals making up petroleum and fossil fuels. Voyager discovered propane and propyne, but the middle members of the carbon chemical group, including propylene, were not detected.
Detailed analysis of the CIRS data from Cassini has discovered propylene, however. Michael Flasar, Goddard scientist and principal CIRS investigator said: "This measurement was very difficult to make because propylene's weak signature is crowded by related chemicals with much stronger signals, This success boosts our confidence that we will find still more chemicals long hidden in Titan's atmosphere."
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. For more information on the mission check out the NASA Saturn website.