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SEPT. 30 2014 7:30 AM | By Phil Plait
One of the biggest discoveries made by the Cassini spacecraft is that Titan—the mammoth moon of Saturn—has lakes of liquid methane and ethane on its surface. Radar maps of the surface of Titan confirmed that the north pole is dotted with them, and combined cover far more of the surface of that moon than the Great Lakes do the Earth.
Smooth lakes of liquid natural gas don’t reflect radar waves well, so the maps made of Titan show the lakes as dark. Cassini’s instruments are sensitive enough that they have even ruled out constant waves on the lakes; they would show up as bright streaks in the images. The lakes are extremely smooth.
So what’s going on with the images above? In 2007, radar maps showed Ligeia Mare very near the moon’s north pole, looking pretty much as usual. The lake looks dark, and solid material (land) shows up as white. But in 2012 a new feature appeared, just off shore! It disappeared, but then turned up again in radar maps taken in 2014 … but shaped differently.
What the what? What are we seeing here? Fun answer: No one knows.
Scientists have apparently ruled out errors in the imaging techniques or artifacts in the detector, meaning whatever this thing is, it’s real.
Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!
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