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A spot on Saturn’s moon called the Magic Island performs a fascinating vanishing act in which it disappears and then reappears without explanation. Scientists have published new findings which seem to shed further light on the identity of the mysterious bright feature on Saturn’s cloud-covered moon Titan.
The bright feature was revealed for the first time by the Cassini Mission in 2013 and was later dubbed the Magic Island. This is mainly because when Cassini made its next flyby, the bright spot had mysteriously disappeared. As Titan’s summer solstice approaches, the Magic Island has been spotted once again.
The new findings were published in the June 22 edition of the journal Nature Geoscience. The Magic Island is one of several bright spots captured by instruments aboard the Cassini spacecraft. According to Jason Hofgartner, a graduate student at New York’s Cornell University and a lead author in the Nature Geoscience report, scientists are now more confident that the bright spots are either methane icebergs or other indicators of warming such as waves or bubbles on the liquid hydrocarbon lakes of Titan, but they remain uncertain overall about the true origin of the phenomenon.
The bright spot is located on Ligeia Mare, one of the seas made of ethane and methane on Titan. The giant moon of Saturn is the only place in the solar system other than Earth where a stable liquid exists on the surface. In fact, Titan has some common parallels with Earth. There is plenty of water though all of it is in the form of rock hard ice. There is also regular rain on the surface of the moon though it is liquid methane which rains down and collects in rivers, lakes and vast seas on the surface.
When Cassini first flew by Ligeia Mare on July 10, 2013 the bright spot was part of the features visible on the photos sent back to Earth by the spacecraft. Cassini made her next pass of Titan on July 26 and by then the bright spot was not visible. This was the case too when the spacecraft made two subsequent flybys. Not all planets can claim a mysterious Magic Island, but Saturn’s moon has confounded researchers with this baffling vanishing act.
Titan has a seasonal cycle that is 30 Earth years long. The moon’s summer solstice will come around May 2017. Right now the moon is in a seasonal period equivalent to the beginning of late spring in Earth’s terms. Titan’s last vernal equinox was in August 2009. Since then the amount of sunlight hitting the moon’s North Pole has been building up gradually. When the Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn in 2004, the northern polar region was in the midst of winter and the area was under perpetual darkness.
The term Magic Island is something of a misnomer as researchers are convinced the bright features are not actual islands. The fact that this particular feature appears and disappears regularly suggests it cannot be a volcanic islet. Right now there are four hypotheses as to what the features consists of. They could either be suspended solids, floating solids, waves or rising bubbles.
In the buildup to the summer, Titan’s North Pole is expected to become a much more dynamic place. As more and more of the sun’s energy gets deposited on the frigid atmosphere, the winds are bound to get stronger leading to more pronounced dune formations on the landed surface and more wave formations in the seas. Perhaps then there will be definitive proof of what the mysterious bright features actually are. For now, the Magic Island on Saturn’s moon continues to perform a mysterious vanishing act, and researchers are anxious to learn more about this fascinating feature of the planet.
By: Rebecca Savastio