Meet the Magic Island
Scientists have discovered bright, island-like formations that seem to change—brightening and dimming over time—on Saturn’s moon, Titan.
The findings were made based on radar images taken by the Cassini spacecraft from 2007 to 2015.
“Analysis by Cassini scientists indicates that the bright features, informally known as the ‘magic island,’ are a phenomenon that changes over time. They conclude that the brightening is due to either waves, solids at or beneath the surface or bubbles, with waves thought to be the most likely explanation. They think tides, sea level and seafloor changes are unlikely to be responsible for the brightening,” NASA explains.
The images also show that similar features exist in Kraken Mare. These findings imply that Titan’s oceans are not stagnant, but rather, they are dynamic environments that flux and evolve.
The 2016 federal budget issued by the US Congress allowed for NASA to continue exploration of outer the Solar System—this gives lunar scientists more time to include Europa, Titan, and Enceladus in their research. So fortunately, more opportunities to explore Titan will allow for a closer look as Cassini conducts further flybys.
Meet the Water Worlds
Scientists believe that all of the aforementioned moons (Europa, Titan, and Enceladus) are home to some form of liquid ocean.
In fact, we know that some of them are.
“Clouds in Titan’s atmosphere rain out liquid methane and ethane, which then collects into lakes that dot Titan’s Earth-like landscape. On Earth, however, our lakes are carved into rock, whereas on Titan the lakes of methane and ethane are carved into a shell of water ice. Beneath Titan’s icy shell may reside a global liquid water ocean. Could life have arisen on such a world? For many in the planetary science community, Titan is heralded as the place to go to look for “weird life”—life unlike life as we know it, life that may have originated in liquid methane instead of liquid water,” the director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Charles Elachi, said in a release.
And there is even hope for alien life.
Elachi continues, “Titan is a world full of organic molecules, which are of course key building blocks for life.” This presents promising opportunities for our study of organic chemistry—and the possibility of new life that may have evolved.