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

2 minute read

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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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com