A mysterious object has appeared and then disappeared on Saturn’s largest moon

Jun 23, 2014

By Science Alert Staff

The object is scientifically known as a “transient feature” but astronomers have playfully dubbed it the “magic island”.

This could be the first time dynamic geological processes have been observed in Titan’s northern hemisphere. The research is published in Nature Geoscience.

“This discovery tells us that the liquids in Titan’s northern hemisphere are not simply stagnant and unchanging, but rather that changes do occur,” Jason Hofgartner from Cornell University in the US and the lead author said in a press release.

The researchers are now studying the “magic island” further.

Titan is the largest of Saturn’s 62 known moons and is covered in lakes and seas. Beneath its thick atmosphere, which is lethal to humans, it closely resembles a smaller, watery Earth – with wind and rain creating familiar landscapes such as mountains, dunes and lakes. It’s the only place other than Earth known to have stable liquids on its surface and falling rain.

But instead of water, icy cold liquid methane and ethane flows through its river-like channels and into its seas, and its dunes are made of hydrocarbon.

The second largest of these seas is the 150-metre-deep Ligeia Mare, where astronomers noticed the unusual geological feature in an image taken by the Cassini spacecraft on 10 July 2013. The island appeared around 9.6 km off the sea’s southern shore. Pictures taken of the same spot previously and a few days later showed no geological features there.

Titan’s northern hemisphere is currently transitioning from spring to summer, seasons which last much longer on the moon than on Earth, and the scientists believe this change could have triggered this mysterious island to appear temporarily.

6 comments on “A mysterious object has appeared and then disappeared on Saturn’s largest moon

  • There are seasonal changes in surface appearance elsewhere on Titan, but seasons are very long when compared to earth’s seasons.

    When photos showed a large patch near the equator of Titan mysteriously darken and then grow lighter within a couple of weeks, scientists knew something big was happening on Saturn’s largest moon. But what they found was something they didn’t expect: a methane rainstorm in a region of Titan thought to be covered by vast, arid dunes.

    While the large moon is known to have methane lakes at its north and south poles, scientists thought Titan’s equatorial region was mostly dry, but the likely cause of the darkness was determined to be an outburst of clouds and methane rain — which suggests Titan’s equator has a rainy season.


    “However, the new findings seem to indicate that tropical rainfall occurs more regularly with the seasonal cycle, although the interval between two subsequent wet seasons is long — about 15 years — due to Saturn’s long orbital period around the sun.”

    This long orbital period makes studying precipitation and seasonal changes on Titan particularly difficult.

    The length of one year on Titan and the rest of the Saturn system is roughly equivalent to 29 Earth years, so Cassini’s observations of Titan from 2004 to 2010 span only about one-fourth of that time.

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  • 6
    james ballard says:

    …I couldn’t say…Pasadena won’t consult me, so I’m certainly not disposed to inform them every time Titan farts…

    I leave my cell phone on as a courtesy…

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