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Observational evidence for active dust storms on Titan at equinox

Observational evidence for active dust storms on Titan at equinox

Publication date: 25 September 2018

Authors: Rodriguez, S., et al.

Journal: Nature Geoscience
Year: 2018

Copyright: © 2018 Springer Nature Limited

Saturn's moon Titan has a dense nitrogen-rich atmosphere, with methane as its primary volatile. Titan's atmosphere experiences an active chemistry that produces a haze of organic aerosols that settle to the surface and a dynamic climate in which hydrocarbons are cycled between clouds, rain and seas. Titan displays particularly energetic meteorology at equinox in equatorial regions, including sporadic and large methane storms. In 2009 and 2010, near Titan's northern spring equinox, the Cassini spacecraft observed three distinctive and short-lived spectral brightenings close to the equator. Here, we show from analyses of Cassini spectral data, radiative transfer modelling and atmospheric simulations that the brightenings originate in the atmosphere and are consistent with formation from dust storms composed of micrometre-sized solid organic particles mobilized from underlying dune fields. Although the Huygens lander found evidence that dust can be kicked up locally from Titan's surface, our findings suggest that dust can be suspended in Titan's atmosphere at much larger spatial scale. Mobilization of dust and injection into the atmosphere would require dry conditions and unusually strong near-surface winds (about five times more than estimated ambient winds). Such strong winds are expected to occur in downbursts during rare equinoctial methane storms—consistent with the timing of the observed brightenings. Our findings imply that Titan—like Earth and Mars—has an active dust cycle, which suggests that Titan's dune fields are actively evolving by aeolian processes.

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