Mystery of dunes on Saturn’s moon Titan solved!


Scientists are investigating how powerful rogue winds shape the somewhat Earth-like landscape on moon Titan.

Saturn has 62 Moons which entitles him to the second place in the rank of the planets with the most moons. The first one, of course is Jupiter, with 67 moons. Some of them don’t yet have proper names. The biggest and the most recognized moon of Saturn is Titan, which is also second biggest moon in our Solar System.

With that number on the table, the variety of environments between them is remarkable. Titan is not like any other moon. The atmosphere is dense; it has got rivers and lakes, which are made up of components of natural gas, such as methane and ethane. The big mystery, which has been around moon Titan, is not, however, in all these anomalies. The main focus is now on dunes that are, despite data, which say that there is only a light breeze, massive.


Cassini radar sees sand dunes on Saturn’s giant moon Titan (upper photo) that are sculpted like Namibian sand dunes on Earth (lower photo). The bright features in the upper radar photo are not clouds but topographic features among the dunes. Credit: NASA

Devon Burr, an associate professor in Earth and Planetary Science Department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville was the leader of this study. The research shows, that wind on moon Titan must blow much faster, than was previously thought in order to form dunes.

Ten years ago, Devon Burr and other researchers were blown away by the pictures from the Cassini spacecraft of Titan that showed dunes that has never been shown before. They were created by particles, which we didn’t know exist.


The biggest mystery is the shape of the dunes. The data gathered from Cassini showed that the winds blew from east to west but the streamlined appearance of the dunes around obstacles like mountains and crates shows, that they were created by winds moving in exactly the opposite direction. Burr and her team dedicated long 6 years to recreate surface and conditions same as on moon Titan. They used a defunct NASA high-pressure wind tunnel.


Sediment inside the Titan wind tunnel for testing.

After two years of countless models and recalibrations, the researchers discovered that the wind, which created the dunes, had to be at least 50 percent faster, than it was previously believed. This discovery also gave an explanation on the dunes and their directions.

This research was also granted a grant from NASA. This will allow Burr and her colleagues to focus more on examining Titan’s wind during different climates.


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Michaela Miklusak

Michaela Miklusak is deputy editor of and big technology enthusiast. Michaela now lives in Singapore, where she studies System Engineering and Informatics.

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