NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has discovered propylene, a chemical that is used to make food-storage containers, car bumpers, on Saturn’s moon Titan.
This is the first time that the plastic ingredient has been detected on any moon or planet, other than Earth.
A small amount of propylene was identified in Titan’s lower atmosphere by Cassini’s Composite Infrared Spectrometer (CIRS). This instrument measures the infrared light, or heat radiation, emitted from Saturn and its moons in much the same way our hands feel the warmth of a fire.
Lead author Conor Nixon, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said that this chemical is all around us in everyday life, strung together in long chains to form a plastic called polypropylene.
He said that the plastic container at the grocery store with the recycling code 5 on the bottom - that’s polypropylene.
The detection of the chemical fills in a mysterious gap in Titan observations that dates back to NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft and the first-ever close flyby of this moon in 1980.
Voyager identified many of the gases in Titan’s hazy brownish atmosphere as hydrocarbons, the chemicals that primarily make up petroleum and other fossil fuels on Earth.
The findings have been published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.