TIME space

Here’s the ‘Magic Island’ That Appeared in Space

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Titan's methane cycle is strikingly similar to Earth’s hydrologic cycle and the only other one known to include stable bodies of surface liquids, such as this north polar sea Ligeia Mare. The Cassini mission has characterized Titan’s surface liquid inventory and Ligeia Mare is now known to have a mixed composition of methane, ethane, and dissolved nitrogen. The sea appeared quiescent throughout the 90 Kelvin north polar winter, but on July 10th, 2013 transient features were discovered, shown in the red circle. Dynamic phenomena are expected to occur with increased frequency and intensity as the 2017 northern summer solstice approaches and will afford Cassini the opportunity to begin characterizing the nature of energetic processes in these alien seas. The July 10th, 2013 image is overlaid on the April 26th, 2007 image to fill a gap in the upper left corner. All of the images have been modified for aesthetic appeal and are shown in false colour. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/University of Arizona/Cornell

Saturn's moon Titan is now known to be dotted with oceans and seas

So China thinks it’s something special for building new islands in disputed waters in the South China Sea? Well back off, Beijing, because Titan’s got you beat. (And relax, we’re not talking about the ICBM that used to go by that name.) We’re talking about the second largest moon in the solar system and one of the niftiest places humans have never been—but our machines have.

Titan belongs to Saturn’s family of moons, and before the arrival of the Cassini spacecraft in the Saturnian system in 2004, scientists had long suspected that like Earth, Titan might be dotted with oceans and seas. Unlike Earth’s oceans, they wouldn’t be filled with liquid water—which would be awfully hard to manage with a surface temperature of -290°F (-180° C)—but liquid methane and ethane. Cassini’s radar mapping has proven that the oceans indeed exist, and they’re every bit as dynamic as the ones on Earth, as confirmed by a new study, just published in Nature Geoscience, announcing the discovery of a new island in Ligeia Mare, Titan’s northern sea. The astronomers describe their discovery drily as a “transient feature,” which is in the nature of scientists. The Internet has dubbed it a “magic island,” which is in the nature of the Internet.

Whatever you call the island, it is thought to be the result of Titan’s approaching summer solstice. The resulting increase in solar heating can lead to waves, bubbling and other kinds of churn that expose previously immersed land masses. Nobody pretends the island is much to see, but the fact that it’s there at all is undeniably cool—and the fact that NASA has a machine on-site to document it is immeasurably cooler.

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