Two new “magic islands” have joined one reported last year on Saturn’s giant moon Titan, Cassini spacecraft observations showed on Monday. The features add to a puzzling vanishing act playing out on the frozen world’s seas.
Since Cassini first arrived at Saturn in 2004, its photos of Titan have revealed numerous seas, lakes, and rivers on the giant moon’s frozen surface. This summer, images showed a mysterious feature in one sea—the first “magic island”—that appeared glinting on a lake’s surface and then quickly vanished.
The find raised speculation that scientists had captured views of waves splashing within the otherwise mirror-smooth liquid methane seas on the moon. Or else it was a fluke.
Now, an August 21 flyby has turned up two more strange reflecting features, magic islands that weren’t there in earlier flybys. “They just popped up,” says Cornell’s Alexander Hayes, who presented the latest survey of Titan’s seas at a briefing at the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences meeting.
“They could be waves, or they could be something more solid,” says MIT’s Jason Soderblom, a member of the Cassini team reporting the observations. “We definitely know now they are something reflecting from the surface.”
Since Titan is the only body besides Earth that has rain-carved geography to study, the possibility of a lake with waves intrigued scientists enough to keep them looking.
“After ten years there, Titan still can surprise us,” Hayes says. “Titan has dunes, lakes, seas, even rivers. All this makes Titan an explorer’s utopia.”
An August 21 flyby passing some 599 miles (964 kilometers) above Titan allowed Cassini to investigate the depth of Kraken Mare, the largest sea on the frozen moon. Radar observations from the spacecraft covered a 120-mile (200-kilometer) shore-to-shore strip of the methane sea.