University of Western Australia telescope to capture the rare astronomical event of Saturn’s largest moon

The Zadko Telescope of the University of Western Australia (UWA) will be used to capture a rare astronomical event. An occultation or eclipse will occur wherein Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, will pass in front of a star.

According to the announcement made by the UWA, the event will illuminate the atmosphere on Titan, giving scientists a rare opportunity to examine it in detail. It is expected to take place on Wednesday, 18 July 2018 at 11.09pm Western Australia time and will last for about four minutes.

A camera that is mounted at the telescope of the Stratospheric Observatory of Infrared Astronomy’s SOFIA 747 aircraft will record the occultation. This is a project funded by NASA and the German Aerospace Centre. SOFIA will be flying above the clouds over the Pacific Ocean to take images of the event.

UWA Associate Professor David Coward commented that it was an exciting moment in astronomy for Australia. He expressed how pleased he was that Western Australia and UWA’s Zadko Telescope had been chosen to help answer deep questions about the Universe.

Professor Coward explained that the telescope of UWA is the most sensitive in WA, fit to capture the occultation. Titan is tantalizingly similar to Earth, possessing wind, rivers, lakes and a liquid water ocean. Understanding its atmosphere may help us in the search for life on other planets. The occultation will allow the scientists to better understand if there are changes to Titan’s atmosphere over time.

Mr Karsten Schindler, a SOFIA scientist from the German SOFIA Institute (DSI) based at NASA Ames Research Centre, will fly to Perth to observe the event. He said that observing the occultation was the only way of studying changes in Titan's upper atmosphere.

He explained that the last Titan occultation happened in 2003. Then in 2005, NASA’s Cassini’s Huygens space probe analysed Titan’s atmosphere. The data gathered in 2005 did not match the 2003 findings, stimulating the question of how variable the state of the atmosphere actually is. The data that will be gathered from the 2018 occultation will help confirm if the atmosphere of Titan is indeed changing.

UWA, DSI at the University of Stuttgart, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and NASA all collaborated for this project.

The involvement of UWA in the mission was made possible by UWA Adjunct Professor Jackie Davidson. The Zadko Telescope is supported by the UWA Faculty of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav).

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