Gigantic dust storms spotted on Titan for first time raise hopes of life

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Massive dust storms on Saturn’s moon Titan have been spotted for the first time.  

Data from the Cassini spacecraft that explored Saturn and its moons between 2004 and 2017 made the discoveryin equatorial regions of Titan.  

It makes Titan the third body in the Solar System where dust storms have been observed – the other two are Earth and Mars.

The discovery, described in a paper published in Nature Geoscience today, is helping scientists to better understand the ‘fascinating and dynamic environment’ of Saturn’s largest moon.

‘Titan is a very active moon,’ says Sebastien Rodriguez, an astronomer at the University Paris Diderot, France, and the lead author of the paper.

‘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.’

Researchers believe the storms consist of complex organic molecules, which result from the atmospheric chemistry.

Once large enough, they eventually fall to the surface, can be raised from large dune fields around Titan’s equator by strong wind gusts that arise in powerful methane storms. 

Such methane storms, previously observed in images from the international Cassini spacecraft, can form above dune fields that cover the equatorial regions of this moon especially around the equinox, the time of the year when the Sun crosses the equator.

Researchers say Titan is an intriguing world – and quite similar to Earth.

In fact, it is the only moon of the Solar System with a substantial atmosphere and the only celestial body other than our planet where stable bodies of surface liquid are known to still exist.

There is one big difference though: while on Earth such rivers, lakes and seas are filled with water, on Titan it is primarily methane and ethane that flows through these liquid reservoirs. 

In this unique methane cycle, the hydrocarbon molecules evaporate, condense into clouds and rain back onto the ground.

The weather on Titan varies from season to season, just as it does on Earth. 

In particular around the equinox, the time when the Sun crosses Titan’s equator, massive clouds can form in tropical regions and cause powerful methane storms. Cassini observed such storms during several of its Titan flybys.

When Sébastien and his team first spotted three unusual equatorial brightenings in infrared images taken by Cassini around the moon’s 2009 northern equinox, they thought these might be exactly such methane clouds. 

A thorough investigation revealed they were something completely different, however.

‘From what we know about cloud formation on Titan, we can say that such methane clouds in this area and in this time of the year are not physically possible,’ says Sébastien.

‘The convective methane clouds that can develop in this area and during this period of time would contain huge droplets and must be at a very high altitude, much higher than the 10 km that modelling tells us the new features are located.’ 

The researchers were also able to rule out that the features were actually on the surface in the form of frozen methane rain or icy lavas, which would have had a different chemical signature and remain visible for much longer, while the bright features in this study were only visible for 11 hours to five weeks.

Modelling also showed that the features must be atmospheric, but still close to the surface – most likely forming a very thin layer of tiny solid organic particles.

Since they were located right over the dune fields around Titan’s equator, the only remaining explanation was that the spots were actually clouds of dust raised from the dunes.

Sébastien says that while this is the first ever observation of a dust storm on Titan, the finding is not surprising.

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