The bizarre “islands” found on Saturn’s moon Titan might not be islands, after all. A new study performed at NASA suggests that the shifting features might be fizzing nitrogen bubbles. The shapes have been spotted by NASA’s probe Cassini while flying around Titan’s hydrocarbon seas.
NASA developed the study based on several laboratory experiments. Jason Hofgartner, researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California and co-investigator in the Cassini team, said that their work on nitrogen solubility confirmed that such bubbles can indeed form in seas.
Michael Malaska of JPL is the scientist who led the study. They simulated the surface conditions present on Titan. The weather system on the moon is mostly based on hydrocarbon and the thick atmosphere is 98 percent nitrogen. Also, liquid methane is present in rivers, lakes, seas, and even in rain. Thus, Titan is the only cosmic body besides Earth which can host stable liquids on its surface.
Experiments on a simulated Titan
The experiments showed that nitrogen could dissolve in Titan’s seas, and the changes in pressure and temperature would send the gas fizzing out. Imagine the phenomenon like the carbon dioxide bubbles which pop out of a soda bottle when you open it.
“Our experiments showed that when methane-rich liquids mix with ethane-rich ones — for example, from a heavy rain, or when runoff from a methane river mixes into an ethane-rich lake — the nitrogen is less able to stay in solution. In effect, it’s as though the lakes of Titan breathe nitrogen. As they cool, they can absorb more of the gas, ‘inhaling.’ And as they warm, the liquid’s capacity is reduced, so they ‘exhale’.”
Malaska talked more about their experiments in the official statement released by NASA.
The mystery of the “magic islands” disclosed
Thus, the study explains why the “magic” shapes on Titan’s surface change shape, disappear, and then reapper. They are in fact fizzing bubbles. Before these experiments, the scientists suspected that the bizarre features could be patterns created by rainfall.
However, such a fizzy surface could be problematic for a potential probe that NASA might send to explore Titan. The heat that would come from the probe might cause the bubbles to gather around it, thus making it difficult for the probe to remain stable.
Anyway, this is quite a big discovery. As the exploration continues, NASA might be able to disclose many other mysteries of Saturn’s moons.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons