Waves Discovered on Saturn’s Moon Titan?

Titan's lakes
A false-color mosaic reveals hydrocarbon lakes on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/University of Idaho

Surfers rejoice! Fresh waves are still out there to conquer—on Saturn’s moon Titan. There, astronomers report a first sighting of waves rolling on an alien sea.

Using its cloud-penetrating radar, the international Cassini spacecraft team mapped the frigid surface of Titan, the ringed planet’s largest moon. Titan is the only other planetary body in the solar system with seas of stable liquid on its surface.

However, with surface temperatures averaging around −292 degrees Fahrenheit (−180 degrees Celsius), it’s not water that fills its many giant lakes, but liquid methane.

Now, the most recent flyby of the hazy moon has revealed a distinct bright spot in the second-largest sea near the moon’s north pole. The spot appears to suddenly disappear almost as soon as it appears in the maps. (See related: “New Titan Photos Showcase Lakes and Salt-Flats.”)

Dubbed the “magic island,” this geologic mystery may be best explained by waves or bubbles floating on the surface of these methane lakes, according to a new study published in Nature Geoscience this week.

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

“We don’t know precisely what caused this ‘magic island’ to appear, but we’d like to study it further.”

This suggests to planetary scientists that what we may be witnessing are the first hints of Titan’s seas reacting to the seasons changing from spring to summer, just like what happens on Earth. (See related: “Saturn Moon Has Tropical ‘Great Salt Lake,’ Methane Marshes.”)

Windy weather may very well be kicking up waves on Titan. To Cassini’s radar, the results look like ghostly islands. Alternately, gas bubbles may be breaching the lake surface.

“Likely, several different processes—such as wind, rain, and tides—might affect the methane and ethane lakes on Titan,” Hofgartner said. “We want to see the similarities and differences from geological processes that occur here on Earth.

“Ultimately, it will help us to understand better our own liquid environments here on Earth.”

 See for Yourself

Saturn is easily visible as a bright, yellow-colored star shining high in the south after dusk.

It’s definitely worth training a small backyard telescope on the crown jewel of the solar system, not only because of its majestic rings but also for its retinue of moons. Even at low magnification, Titan should be readily picked up as a small, bright, starlike object adjacent to the ringed world.

Saturn’s moons are a lot fainter than Jupiter’s; however, since Titan currently shines at magnitude 8.6, it is a fairly easy target for small telescopes. The hazy moon takes just under 16 days to rotate around Saturn, so an observer can watch day to day how Titan’s position relative to the planet slowly changes.

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, on TwitterFacebook, and his website.

Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.
  • Jie Liu

    so many interesting things happened around us, we should find them all by our bright eyes.

  • Susanne Sund

    This is so nice.Don’t have time to read everything unfortunately.

  • Mario

    Thank you for the explanation of such a wonderful moon. I wonder how it would be to see a sunset (or “Saturnset”) in these methane seas.

  • Dwayne LaGrou

    Maybe we will be able to use some of that Methane and other gasses as a fuel source or to help run giant green houses in space. I wonder if it is a lot warmer as it goes deeper. I would think there would be a lot of internal heat from being subjected to Saturn’s tremendous gravity. I mean we can see how much OUR moon affects our oceans with a fraction of. The gravity.
    It would be so cool to see what’s going on under the surface.
    It just SCREAMS, Send a probe, SEND A PROBE!!!

  • Ali

    I wanted to know if it is possible to make to gases on the surface of Saturn flow down to the earth for use,but someone else had asked the same question. So let me know what we may find if we drill the earth down to the point that the other side of our planet appears to us. Is it possible?


    I’ve only glanced at this Article so far, but what I have read is Very Impressive.
    However, could you please be a bit more Descriptive when you mention a ‘Small Backyard Telescope’. I only have a small Saxon Refractor (70mm x 400mm), with a 9mm Lens and a 20mm Lens, and a X2 Barlow.
    As described on Website, it is an Astronomical Telescope, but I have been informed since I acquired it that it’s Really Only a Terrestrial ‘scope, and that Saturn would only look like a Bright Star. So to date, I am not sure if I have been looking at Saturn or just a Bright Star.
    Viewing of the moon is quite Impressive, and Stars are a lot clearer, and you can see many that you cannot see with the Naked Eye. On a ‘Good Seeing Night’ I have Viewed Jupiter on numerous occasions, and what appeared to be between 2 and 6 (depending on the Night) of it’s moons: However, Jupiter itself appeared only as a Really Bright Star. But if I put it a bit Out Of Focus, so that it looked like a Large Blurry Dot, the Moons seemed to be easier to see.
    In case you’re wondering how I knew it was Jupiter, I was using Online Information, and Articles/Star Maps in Magazines, showing comparitve Positions of Planets in Relation to the moon. I have been advised to Purchase a 4mm, and a 9mm Lens, to improve my Viewing of Mars and Saturn, but I did Magnification Calculations utilising the X2 Barlow, and (if my calculations were correct), it more or less resulted in the same as using my existing Lenses with the X2 Barlow, obtain the Magnification of an unaided 4mm, and 13mm Lenses (What would your advice be: And would the Result of using a 4mm with theX2 Barlow be beneficial?).

  • Billie Joe Armstrong

    this helped me out a lot for a project. Thank you very much for the useful information. =)

  • Richard Gott

    @GALAXY-VOYAGER You need a good 4mm lens to see saturn well. same for Jupiter. This is with no Barlow. remember the barlow makes the image closer but more blurry. Good Luck.

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