Dec 11, 2014 11:30 AM EST
While researchers have long known of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, and its sandy surface, new research presented this week in two separate studies published in the journal Nature reveals that the 300 foot sand dunes on the moon's surface may have originated from very different circumstances than those on Earth. Titan, which is much like the Earth, is one of the most intriguing moons our solar system has come to offer. But while it is the only other celestial body that has standing reservoirs of liquid on its surface and fields of dunes like those of the Sahara desert, astronomers are now finding that the events leading to Titan's surface are far unlike what happened here on Earth.
Titan's historical story is much more a tale of short vignettes, as opposed to continuous change over time like that on Earth, and new research indicates that the moon Titan's dunes were likely created by short, powerful rogue winds that drove sands into piles, hundreds of feet tall. And it's not just a few strong winds that were able to dorm the impressive dunes that reach heights of more than 300 feet. The studies conducted by the SETI Institute, in collaboration with data collected by NASA's research team, not only revealed a plausible method for dune formation, but also indicated that the enormous structures were likely created when rare bursts of winds blowing westward gathered fragments and dunes together to new heights.
"This work highlights the fact that the winds that blow 95 percent of the time might not have an effect on what we see" lead author of one of the two studies, Devon Burr says.
Hoping to gain a bit of insight into the complex conditions leading to Titan's uneven surface, Burr who worked formerly with the SETI Institute, developed a wind tunnel in the 1980s in which she and her team were able to recreate conditions of the surface o f Titan that would have influenced the formation of the dunes.
"It was a bear to operate, but Dr. Burr's refurbishment of the facility as a Titan simulator has tamed the beast" co-author of the study, John Marshall says. "It is now an important addition to NASA's arsenal of planetary simulation facilities."
The evolution of Titan's landscape continues to be of significant interests to researchers because of the satellites close similarities to Earth. However, since both of their surfaces vary so greatly, wherein Titan's lakes and oceans are made of methane and ethanol instead of Earth's water, researchers continue to find that working at a distance will allow many of Titan's vast secrets to remain hidden, that is until additional resources, and perhaps a rover, are sent its way in space.
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