Okay, that’s fascinating.

Isle of Might

For a decade, astronomers have been puzzling over “magic islands” on the surface of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

These bright and unusually smooth spots dotting the moon’s liquid methane and ethane oceans first showed up in observations by NASA’s Cassini-Huygens spacecraft in 2013. At the time, astronomers were puzzled by the islands’ unnerving ability to appear and disappear from observations over time, a quality that earned its enchanting nickname. Ever since, scientists have been trying to explain the mysterious phenomenon.

Now, according to a new study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, a team of researchers has come up with a potential answer: the islands are likely bits of porous, frozen organic solids bobbing on the surface of Titan’s liquid oceans.

“I wanted to investigate whether the magic islands could actually be organics floating on the surface, like pumice that can float on water here on Earth before finally sinking,” said lead author Xinting Yu, planetary scientist and assistant professor at the University of Texas San Antonio, in a statement.

Calving Glaciers

It’s a compelling theory that could force us to reevaluate what we know about Titan’s extremely dense atmosphere and its oceans of methane and ethane, compounds that have low surface tension. According to the researchers, if the matter comprising the islands were “porous like Swiss cheese,” it would able to bob on the surface of these oceans. If they were too dense, they’d sink.

It’s not unlike the behavior of glaciers here on Earth, which break up into smaller pieces and float away. If enough of these smaller clumps were to collect, they could float away together.

Yu and her colleagues also suggest in their paper that a “uniformly thin layer of floating solids could also explain the overall smoothness, with large clusters of floating solids potentially visible as ‘magic islands.'”

We’re only beginning to scratch the surface of Saturn’s largest companion, and many mysteries remain. Fortunately, plans are already underway to get new data.

NASA has committed to sending a robotic rotorcraft called Dragonfly to Titan. Perhaps it’ll get the first-ever glimpses of the mysterious islands dotting the moon’s many oceans — though it won’t be until just over a decade from now.

More on Titan: NASA Considers Surfing the Lakes of Saturn’s Moon With an Autonomous Airplane


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