Scientists Spot Dust Storms on Titan, Saturn's Most Habitable Moon

Tuesday, 25 September 2018 - 11:37AM
Astronomy
Space
Solar System
Tuesday, 25 September 2018 - 11:37AM
Scientists Spot Dust Storms on Titan, Saturn's Most Habitable Moon
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Composite: Outer Places - Pixabay + NASA/ESA/IPGP/Labex UnivEarthS/University Paris Diderot
Despite being a small moon orbiting ten times farther from the Sun than Earth, Titan is strikingly similar to Earth: it has a stable, robust atmosphere, liquid oceans on its surface, a "sea level," and even some lakes that resemble Earth's. In fact, at least one scientist has argued that Titan is a better target for colonization than Mars. Now, astronomers have discovered something else unique about Titan: aside from Earth and Mars, it's the only other place in the Solar System where we've spotted dust storms.

According to Sebastian Rodriguez, one of the lead authors on the new study exploring the phenomenon: "Titan is a very active moon. We already know that about its geology and exotic hydrocarbon cycle. Now we can add another analogy with Earth and Mars: the active dust cycle, in which organic dust can be raised from large dune fields around Titan's equator."

Like Earth, Titan also has seasons and an equinox, the latter of which can signal the onset of huge methane storms (most of Titan's surface liquid and "water" cycle consist of methane and ethane, as opposed to water). During the 2009 equinox, Rodriguez and his team spotted something strange going on: they were getting unusual amounts of bright infrared emissions near Titan's equator that couldn't have been caused by clouds or surface features.

After closer investigation, they realized that the source was located in the atmosphere, but close to the surface of the moon...directly over Titan's giant dune fields. The conclusion was that Titan was experiencing a dust storm, similar to the huge ones spotted on Mars. According to Rodriguez: "The near-surface wind speeds required to raise such an amount of dust as we see in these dust storms would have to be very strong—about five times as strong as the average wind speeds estimated by the Huygens measurements near the surface and with climate models."

So even if humans decide to colonize Titan instead of Mars, we'll still be dealing with dust.


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