The 300-feet sand dunes on Saturn’s moon Titan have been a puzzling mystery for years. The dunes look a lot like the sandy hills in Sahara desert. But two different groups of scientists have found that their origins are quite different. Those on the Earth were formed continuously over time, but Titan’s dunes were formed by “powerful rogue winds.”
Rare westward winds formed sand dunes
Its formation was a mystery because the prevailing winds on Titan blow in an easterly direction. But the dunes were formed in the opposite direction as the moon’s steady winds. Researchers led by Devon Burr of the University of Tennessee found that, twice a year, the atmosphere on Titan becomes turbulent. It causes the wind to change direction and become fiercely stronger. These rare and short bursts of wind blowing westward helped form the giant structures.
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What causes the atmosphere on Saturn’s moon to become turbulent? Changing position of the Sun in its sky. The atmosphere changes when the Sun crosses Titan’s equator. Burr said the winds that blow 95% of the time have no effect on what we see. Burr and her colleagues conducted their study in a wind tunnel. They recreated conditions on Titan that influence the formation of sand dunes such as a thicker atmosphere and lower gravity. Titan’s atmosphere is 1.5 times thicker than the Earth, while its gravity is just one-seventh of the gravity on the Earth.
Titan’s dunes are made up of hydrocarbons
Another team of researchers published their study in the journal Nature GeoScience. Led by Ryan Ewing, they used data from the Cassini spacecraft to study the dune formation on Titan.They said that the dunes took about 3,000 Saturn years (or 90,000 Earth years) to form. Titan is of particular interest to scientists because it has several similarities with our planet.
Titan is the only moon in our solar system with an atmosphere. Besides Earth, it’s the only body in the solar system that has liquid on its surface. However, Titan’s oceans and lakes contain ethanol and methane instead of water. Its sand dunes are made up of hydrocarbons, unlike those on the Earth that are made of silicates.