Analysis of the near-IR spectrum of Saturn: A comprehensive radiative transfer model of its middle and upper troposphere

Dana X. Kerola, Harold P. Larson, Martin G. Tomasko

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Scopus citations


Spectra from 1.7 to 3.3 μm acquired at the NASA Kuiper Airborne Observatory include two of Saturn's near-IR atmospheric transmission windows that are at least partially obscured by telluric H2O and CO2 absorptions at ground-based telescopes. This entire spectral region was fitted to a model that included gaseous absorption by H2, CH4, NH3, and PH3 and the effects of multiple scattering by haze. The objectives were to determine accurate elemental abundance ratios (e.g., C/H, P/H, etc.) and to characterize the size, distribution, and composition of the haze particles in Saturn's atmosphere. The results for C/H and P/H are 8.5 × 10-4 and 4.3 × 10-7, respectively. No evidence of gaseous NH3 was found. The upper limit to the NH3 mixing ratio at Saturn's radiative-convective boundary is ≈10-9. Ammonia is decidedly undersaturated at atmospheric pressures lower than ≈1 bar. The upper limit to gaseous NH3 at 3 μm is extremely low compared to detected amounts derived from observations at visible, mid-IR, and microwave wavelengths. These differences can be reconciled on the basis of different mechanisms for spectral line formation in these disparate spectral regions. A search for solid phase NH3 was also negative. From thermochemical arguments it has been widely assumed that NH3 ice crystals comprise the upper clouds on Saturn, although no incontrovertible spectroscopic proof has ever been presented. Strong bands of solid NH3 at 3 μm therefore offer an important test of this assumption. Saturn's observed spectrum was placed on an absolute reflectivity scale which then could be compared with synthesized spectra of candidate haze particles. The calculations demonstrated that the reflectances of pure, polydisperse NH3 ice crystals with effective radii ranging from 0.1 to 2.25 μm are not compatible with Saturn's 3-μm spectrum. A reasonable fit to Saturn's continuum spectrum can only be achieved by using bright, micron-sized scattering haze particles mixed in with H2, CH4, and PH3 in Saturn's middle and upper troposphere.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)190-212
Number of pages23
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 1997

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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