Mystery Object on Saturn’s Moon Titan Intrigues Scientists

Posted by on June 22, 2014 in Earth & Space, Sci-Tech with 1 Comment
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Ian Sample | The Guardian | June 22nd 2014

The mystery object, described as a 'magic island' appeared out of nowhere in radar images of a hydrocarbon sea on Saturn's giant moon, Titan. Photograph: JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell/NASA/PA

The mystery object, described as a ‘magic island' appeared out of nowhere in radar images of a hydrocarbon sea on Saturn's giant moon, Titan. Photograph: JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell/NASA/PA

Scientists are investigating a mystery object that appeared and then vanished again from a giant lake on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn.

They spotted the object in an image taken by Nasa‘s Cassini probe last year as it swung around the alien moon, more than a billion kilometres from Earth. Pictures of the same spot captured nothing before or some days later.


Little more than a white blob on a grainy image of Titan's northern hemisphere, the sighting could be an iceberg that broke free of the shoreline, an effect of rising bubbles, or waves rolling across the normally placid lake's surface, scientists say.

Astronomers have named the blob the “magic island” until they have a better idea what they are looking at. “We can't be sure what it is yet because we only have the one image, but it's not something you would normally see on Titan,” said Jason Hofgartner, a planetary scientist at Cornell University in New York. “It is not something that has been there permanently.”

Titan is one of the most extraordinary places in the solar system. The land is strewn with hydrocarbon dunes that rise above lakes fed by rivers of liquid methane and ethane. The atmosphere is so thick, and the gravity so weak, that a human could strap on wings and flap into the air. That air is laced with lethal hydrogen cyanide.

The largest moon of Saturn – there are more than 60 smaller ones – is the only place beyond Earth known to have stable liquids on its surface and rain falling from its skies. Spacecraft have mapped scores of lakes there. The three biggest are named after mythological beasts, the Kraken, Ligeia and Punga, and are large enough to qualify as seas, or mares.

The US team made their curious discovery while poring over radar images of Ligeia mare, a 150-metre-deep sea that stretches for hundreds of kilometres in Titan's northern hemisphere. Among the snapshots taken in 2007, 2009 and 2013 was one with the strange white feature, about six miles off the mountainous southern shore.

'Magic island' found on Saturn moon Titan

NASA handout photo dated 26/04/07 of the area in Titan's Ligeia mare before the object was seen (top) and 10/07/13 of the ‘magic island'. Photograph: JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell/NASA/PA

Roughly 12 miles long and six miles wide, the bright spot appears in an image dated 10 July 2013 but is missing from pictures of the same spot taken previously and on 26 July. Hofgartner said the team had ruled out any errors in the radar imaging equipment that could result in the blob.


Through a process of elimination, the scientists have whittled the number of potential explanations down to four. It could be one or more icebergs floating around, or material in suspension beneath the surface. But Cassini's radar might also have picked upseen a rush of bubbles coming from the depths of the sea, or captured the first signs of deep-sea waves on Titan.

Last year's Cassini fly-by found that Ligeia mare, Titan's second-largest lake, was as smooth as glass. The tranquil expanse of liquid methane and ethane had no waves or surface ripples larger than 1mm.

The profound stillness may be because the wind on Titan is so feeble. But that could be changing. Titan's orbital path and tilted axis make for seasons that last for seven Earth years. The northern hemisphere is gently warming now, as spring gives way to summer, which arrives in earnest in 2017. Warmer weather brings stronger winds, and stronger windswhich bring waves.

“This may be waves picking up. The sun is shining brighter, and that energy can be powering the winds. All you would need is a light breeze, around half a metre per second,” said Hofgartner, whose study appeared in the journal Nature Geoscience.

But the wind on Titan may never be strong enough to stir truly impressive waves. “If you had a large enough surfboard, you could certainly float there, but I don't think you'd really get the waves you'd want,” Hofgartner said. The hydrocarbon seas, he added, are a chilly -180C.

If waves are the cause of the curious white blob, then Cassini spotted them before they had spread more widely across the sea. Follow-up images in the next few months are expected to shed more light on the mystery.

“We now have the first tantalising glimpse of some sort of dynamical process in one of Titan's largest seas,” said John Zarnecki, professor ofspace science at the Open University.

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  1. stevenburgin@hotmail.com' steven says:

    i bet its low tide and that is land exposed by it

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