Before shutdown, NASA found ingredient for plastic on Saturn's moon Titan

Saturn's moon Titan's atmosphere creates a ring of light outlining the large moon. NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Shortly before the government shutdown closed NASA doors indefinitely, the space agency announced that it has discovered propylene on Saturn's largest moon, Titan. The chemical is an essential ingredient in many plastic items.

Scientists determined that the chemical is present in Titan's atmosphere based on data from Cassini's composite infrared spectrometer (CIRS) instrument. Propylene is more commonly found in car bumpers, plastic containers and other manmade plastic goods.

Cassini has been orbiting Saturnsince 2004. It will continue exploring Saturn's moons until it is intentionally crashed into Saturn's atmosphere in 2017.

Titan is the second-largest moon in our solar system, and the only one that has an atmosphere similar to those of the planets.

"This chemical is all around us in everyday life, strung together in long chains to form a plastic called polypropylene," said NASA planetary scientist Conor Nixon in a statement. His research was published Sept. 30 in Astrophysical Journal Letters."That plastic container at the grocery store with the recycling code 5 on the bottom -- that's polypropylene."

"This measurement was very difficult to make because propylene's weak signature is crowded by related chemicals with much stronger signals," said Michael Flasar, Goddard scientist and principal CIRS investigator, in a statement. "This success boosts our confidence that we will find still more chemicals long hidden in Titan's atmosphere."

Further research into Cassini's data will have to wait until the government reopens NASA's doors.

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    Danielle Elliot is a freelance science editor and reporter for CBS News. She holds an M.A. in science and health journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in broadcast journalism from the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter - @daniellelliot.

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