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article imageThe 'magic island' on Saturn's moon Titan

By Ryan Hite     Jun 23, 2014 in Science
Scientists discovered a "magic island," among other things, as the Northern Hemisphere of Saturn reaches its peak, spurring further study as the liquid methane reacts to the warmth of the sun.
Scientists are eyeing closely the summer solstice as it approaches Titan, Saturn's largest moon.
With sunlight shining on the moon's northern hemisphere, Titan is revealing intriguing discoveries, such as a mysterious bright object that researchers have dubbed the "magic island."
The bright spot is in the hydrocarbon lake Ligeia Mare and is one of several such spots discovered on Titan in 2013 with instruments aboard Cassini. Researchers think the spots could be floating methane "icebergs" or other signs of warming, such as waves or bubbles, said lead author Jason Hofgartner, a student at Cornell University in New York.
The findings were published June 22 in the journal Nature Geoscience.
These spots are among the first hints that Titan's methane and ethane lakes may be stirring in response to summer warmth, similar to lakes on Earth responding to the changing seasons. The lakes have been extraordinarily smooth until now. Scientists found the smoothness puzzling because Titan's surface has many wind-driven features such as dunes.
Researchers hope that Titan's summer brews up storms like on Earth, spurring further watch and study. "Now that we're going into the summer solstice, we're looking to find whatever active processes might be powered by the sun," Hofgartner stated.
"This is some of the best science ever to come out of Titan, and we still have three more years to make discoveries," he continued.
Titan is the only known body besides Earth in the solar system with noticeable lakes, rivers and seas. Scientists think the summer solstice may warm the lakes enough on the moon to release gases or chunks of methane ice. Some models suggest that moisture and heat rising from the lake surfaces might trigger small tropical cyclones that may be similar to hurricanes on Earth.
The amount of sunlight in Titan's northern hemisphere has been building since 2009 slowly and will top out around 2017, the researchers stated. The moon's north pole region was dark when Cassini arrived at Saturn in 2004.
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