This image shows the first flash of sunlight reflected off a lake on Saturn's moon Titan. The glint off a mirror-like surface is known as a specular reflection. This kind of glint was detected by the visual and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIMS) on NASA's Cassini spacecraft on July 8, 2009. It confirmed the presence of liquid in the moon's northern hemisphere, where lakes are more numerous and larger than those in the southern hemisphere. Scientists using VIMS had confirmed the presence of liquid in Ontario Lacus, the largest lake in the southern hemisphere, in 2008. (Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/DLR)

Feb. 4, 2013 — A paper published this week using data from NASA's Cassini mission describes in more detail than ever before how aerosols in the highest part of the atmosphere are kick-started at Saturn's moon Titan. Scientists want to understand aerosol formation at Titan because it could help predict the behavior of smoggy aerosol layers on Earth.

According to the new paper, published this week in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Titan's trademark reddish-brown smog appears to begin with solar radiation on molecules of nitrogen and methane in the ionosphere, which creates a soup of negative and positive ions. Collisions among the organic molecules and the ions help the molecules grow into bigger and more complex aerosols. Lower down in the atmosphere, these aerosols bump into each other and coagulate, and at the same time interact with other, neutral particles. Eventually, they form the heart of the physical processes that rain hydrocarbons on Titan's surface and form lakes, channels and dunes.

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