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Plastic Chemicals Found On Saturn's Moon Titan

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This view of Titan, the largest of Saturn's 56 known moons, was taken on 26 December 2005
This view of Titan, the largest of Saturn's 56 known moons, was taken on 26 December 2005

A chemical commonly used in plastics here on Earth has been found on Saturn's distant moon of Titan.

Propylene, which is used to make everything from car bumpers to plastic bottles, has been found in the lower atmosphere of the moon-world by the Cassini space probe.

It is the first time that the plastic ingredient has been found anywhere other than Earth.

Scientists said in Astrophysical Journal Letters that they used the 'composite infrared spectrometer' on Cassini to make the find, by looking at the light emitted from Saturn and its Moons.

Although Titan, which is the largest of Saturn's 56 satellites, is known already to have large amounts of hydrocarbons on its surface, propylene had never been discovered. But the team at Nasa was able to find the same signal at different altitudes inside the moon's atmosphere, and from that data could determine that the material was indeed the key plastic chemical.

"This chemical is all around us in everyday life, strung together in long chains to form a plastic called polypropylene," said Conor Nixon, a planetary scientist at Nasa and lead author of the paper. "That plastic container at the grocery store with the recycling code 5 on the bottom—that's polypropylene."

Scientists now hope that with further analysis they can find other chemicals inside Titan's atmosphere.

"I am always excited when scientists discover a molecule that has never been observed before in an atmosphere," said Scott Edgington, Cassini's deputy project scientist at Nasa. "This new piece of the puzzle will provide an additional test of how well we understand the chemical zoo that makes up Titan's atmosphere."

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