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article imageOp-Ed: Mystery on Titan — Why did a feature in Titan’s sea disappear?

By Paul Wallis     Sep 29, 2014 in Science
Sydney - Astronomers watching features on Saturn’s moon Titan were astonished to see a “land” feature simply disappear on photos from the Cassini spacecraft. This large feature, a peninsula on the Saturnian hydrocarbon “sea,” seems to have disappeared.
NASA/JPL labs images show a highly dynamic environment, with multiple variations, but this particular feature completely disappeared. The large area of methane and ethane forms a sea of approximately 100 square miles. (When looking at these images, the brighter “land” features are actually submerged.)
Titan is Saturn’s largest moon, and is subjected to multiple gravitational forces, as well as local forces. The exact dynamics of features related to the Titan sea aren’t well understood, but it’s pretty obvious that this sea works to a very different set of rules.
One of the issues here is that the sea of hydrocarbons naturally has its own properties. According to NASA, the feature completely changed its morphology in seven years. Closer examination of the image indicates that a darker, apparently more deeply submerged feature in the affected area. Other features have also changed morphology, indicating an active service able to drastically change morphologies very quickly.
(Note: As a matter of fact, the entire mass of materials seems to be moving in each photo, including rising and sinking of different areas. This may relate to an ongoing motion, caused by gravity and/or specific gravity in the sea. My guess would be that these materials are semi-solid, accounting for their obvious ability to change morphologies on a large scale.)
Theory and practice
That good news for theoretical astronomy is that the massive forces in play on Titan were predicted long ago. The difficulty for practical astronomy is trying to figure out exactly how this mechanism works. It’s quite possible that the Titan sea, which is comprised entirely of hydrocarbons, has a different mass/performance dynamic built in which generates service of its, as well as other macro forces.
Less obvious is the mechanism which drives the clear mobility of the solid features. The surface of Titan in these pictures looks remarkably similar to Norwegian fjords, for example. Imagine terrain like that changing on a regular basis, in a relatively short space of time.
NASA has its work cut out for it solving this problem. They are currently investigating “… surface waves, rising bubbles, floating solids, solids that are suspended just below the surface or perhaps something more exotic”. It’s quite possible that the hydrocarbon sea provides a level of buoyancy for floating materials, or, alternatively, dictates the behaviour of immersed materials, reshaping them in accordance with other forces affecting Titan.
The exploration of the solar system is providing a running commentary on exactly how alien the many alien environments can be. Every planet is providing new scenarios, new dynamics, and new information. It’ll be interesting to see how this mystery resolves itself.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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