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.
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).