Earlier this year, we reported on a mysterious “ghost” object that had suddenly appeared and then disappeared on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Now, new observations by the Cassini team show this elusive feature is back again.
You may recall that a so-called “transient feature,” nicknamed “Magic Island” by the Cassini team, was first observed by Cassini in July 2013 during a Titan flyby. Magic Island has continued to puzzle scientists because shortly after its initial appearance, it disappeared and has been in hiding ever since. That is, until it just-as-suddenly reappeared in images created using SAR data collected in mid-August, 2014.
However, with its reemergence comes additional questions for scientists since its physical appearance has changed rather significantly, having roughly doubled in size during its 13 months in hiding, growing from 30 square miles [75 square km] in 2013 to almost 60 square miles [160 square km], as seen in the latest images, above.
Although scientists initially considered that this had been a transient feature, they now suspect that its appearance and disappearance may be the result of Titan’s changing seasons. (Titan is currently entering summer in its northern hemisphere.) There has also been some speculation that the feature may be rising gas bubbles, surface waves, or solid material at (or just below) the surface of Ligeia Mare.
Titan’s seas are made of liquid methane and ethane, organic compounds which are gases on Earth but liquids in Titan’s incredibly chilly -290º F (-180º C) environment.
“Science loves a mystery, and with this enigmatic feature, we have a thrilling example of ongoing change on Titan,” said Stephen Wall, the deputy team lead of Cassini’s radar team, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to continue watching the changes unfold and gain insights about what’s going on in that alien sea.”
The monitoring of Titan’s changing climate and surface features is a primary goal of Cassini’s ongoing, and twice-extended, mission. Further studies may confirm or eliminate explanations that have been presented to date – or they may lead to completely new hypotheses about mysteries held within and below Titan’s seas.
In addition to its original primary mission, Cassini, which was launched in October 1997 and entered Saturn’s orbit on July 1, 2004, has been extended two times – the Extended Equinox Mission in July 2008, and the Solstice Mission in November, 2010. In September, 2014, NASA announced that it had fully funded Cassini through its planned completion in 2017.
For more information about Cassini and its ongoing mission, visit:
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