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Cassini maps weather on Saturn’s massive moon

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Artist's rendition of the Cassini spacecraft at Saturn. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

JOHNS HOPKINS (US)—The rippled sand dunes on Titan tell a story of wind and weather. After four years of data collection by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, scientists have mapped the dune fields on Saturn’s largest moon. The results could prove significant for planning future Titan explorations that might involve balloon-borne experiments.

“At Titan there are very few clouds, so determining which way the wind blows is not an easy thing, but by tracking the direction in which Titan’s sand dunes form, we get some insight into the global wind pattern,” says Ralph Lorenz, Cassini radar scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. “Think of the dunes sort of like a weather vane, pointing us to the direction the winds are blowing.”

Cassini, which launched in 1997 and is now in extended mission operations, continues to blaze its trail around the Saturn system and will visit Titan again on March 27. Seventeen Titan flybys are planned this year.

Titan’s rippled dunes are generally oriented east-west.  Surprisingly, their orientation and characteristics indicate that, near the surface, winds blow toward the east instead of toward the west. This means that Titan’s surface winds blow opposite the direction suggested by previous global circulation models.

“Titan’s dunes are young, dynamic features that interact with topographic obstacles and give us clues about the wind regimes,” says Jani Radebaugh of Brigham Young University. “Winds come at these dunes from at least a couple of different directions, but then combine to create the overall dune orientation.”

Titan’s dunes are believed to be made up of hydrocarbon sand grains likely derived from organic chemicals in Titan’s smoggy skies. The dunes wrap around high terrain, which provides some idea of their height. They accumulate near the equator, and may pile up there because drier conditions allow for easy transport of the particles by the wind.  Titan’s higher latitudes contain lakes and may be “wetter” with more liquid hydrocarbons, not ideal conditions for creating dunes.

The new map, based on all the high-resolution radar data collected during a four-year period, is available at www.nasa.gov/cassini. Some 16,000 dune segments were mapped out from about 20 radar images, digitized and combined to produce the new map.

Johns Hopkins University news: www.jhuapl.edu

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