Cassini Sees a “Zen Garden” on Titan

by Jason Major on April 8, 2014

Radar image of rows of dunes on Titan (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Radar image of rows of dunes on Titan (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Looking like the flowing designs carved by a Zen gardener’s rake, long parallel dunes of hydrocarbon sand stretch across the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan. The image above, acquired by Cassini in July 2013, reveals these intriguing and remarkably Earthlike landforms in unprecedented detail via radar, which can easily pierce through Titan’s thick clouds.

I’m feeling a little more enlightened already.

Although it piles into dunes like sand does here, Titan’s sand is not the same as what you’d find on a beach here on Earth. According to an ESA “Space in Images” article:

While our sand is composed of silicates, the ‘sand’ of these alien dunes is formed from grains of organic materials about the same size as particles of our beach sand. The small size and smoothness of these grains means that the flowing lines carved into the dunes show up as dark to the human eye.

Titan's surface is almost completely hidden from view by its thick orange "smog" (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. Composite by J. Major)

Titan’s surface is almost completely hidden from view by its thick orange “smog” (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. Composite by J. Major)

Radar imaging, although capable of seeing through Titan’s opaque orange atmosphere, doesn’t capture visible-light images. Instead it’s sensitive to the varying textures of a landscape as they reflect microwaves; the smoother an object or an area is the darker it appears to radar, while irregular, rugged terrain shows up radar-bright.

The pixelated “seam” cutting horizontally across the center is the result of image artifacting.

Learn more about Cassini’s RADAR instrument here, and read more about this image on the ESA site here.

About 

A graphic designer in Rhode Island, Jason writes about space exploration on his blog Lights In The Dark, Discovery News, and, of course, here on Universe Today. Ad astra!

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