Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Unusual Changing Feature in Titan's Ligeia Mare

These three images, created from Cassini Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) data, show the appearance and evolution of a mysterious feature in Ligeia Mare, one of the largest hydrocarbon seas on Saturn's moon Titan. The views, taken during three different Cassini flybys of Titan, show that this feature was not visible in earlier radar images of the same region and its appearance changed between 2013 and 2014.

In the images, the dark areas represent the sea, which is thought to be composed of mostly methane and ethane. Most of the bright areas represent land surface above or just beneath the water line. The mysterious bright feature appears off the coast below center in the middle and right images.

The mystery feature had not been seen in preceding SAR observations of the region from 2007 to 2009. After its first appearance in early July 2013, it was not visible in observations by Cassini's Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer, obtained later in July and in September 2013. Low-resolution SAR images obtained in October 2013 also failed to recover the feature.

The SAR observation from Cassini's August 21, 2014 Titan flyby shows that the feature was still visible, although its appearance changed during the 11 months since it was last observed. The feature seems to have changed in size between the images from 2013 and 2014 -- doubling from about 30 square miles (about 75 square kilometers) to about 60 square miles (about 160 square kilometers). Ongoing analyses of these data may eliminate some of the explanations previously put forward, or reveal new clues as to what is happening in Titan's seas.

The Cassini radar team is investigating possible origins for the feature, including surface waves, rising bubbles, floating solids, solids that are suspended just below the surface or perhaps something more exotic. Researchers suspect that the appearance of this feature could be related to changing seasons on Titan, as summer draws near in the moon's northern hemisphere. Monitoring such changes is a major goal for Cassini's current extended mission.

The upper half of the middle image uses data from the April 26, 2007 Titan flyby. That area did not receive SAR coverage during the July 10, 2013 encounter, so the earlier data was used to fill-in the scene.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell

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