SPEAKER 1: And liftoff of the Cassini spacecraft on a billion-mile trek to Saturn.
ALEX HAYES: The Cassini spacecraft is a flagship mission from NASA that was meant to study the Saturnian system. And one of the primary science targets in the Saturnian system is Titan. And Titan is just this explorers' dream. It has this fundamental story of exploration behind it, and intrigue and mystery.
SPEAKER 1: Jupiter inlet tracking station now acquiring data.
ALEX HAYES: What really excites me about this paper is both the personal story and the science. Cassini has been in the Saturn system for ten years collecting data and still surprises us. Some of these new discoveries such as this particular paper were done by very early career and new scientists that are coming into a mission that's been operating for over a decade. In this particular instance, the original science team when we first saw the images that came down saw this feature that we're calling the magic island now. And initially, it was written off as, oh, that's a projection artifact, because we only obtain pieces of Titan at a time, and then we have to overlay them with old data.
JASON HOFGARTNER: Looking at the data, and all of a sudden there was this blob that wasn't there in a previous image. And a couple of hours later, we had a telecon with the full Cassini radar science team, a lot of professionals on the team. And there were a lot of different hypotheses for what this thing could be, but really, no one had a good solid explanation for what was going on here. We started to investigate, what was this splotch featured, whether it's an image processing error or some sort of an artifact essentially. And that analysis showed that this feature was real. It's a geophysical phenomenon occurring on Titan.
Titan does have what we call a hydrological cycle, so that's liquids at the surface, which in my opinion is the most exciting part about Titan. Because it's the only other world of all the worlds that we've discovered so far in the universe that we know to have liquids that are stable there on the surface. And these liquids, unlike watery Earth, are methane and ethane. And they're going through this hydrologic cycle, in that they are stored in reservoirs and lakes and seas, and at both of the poles, but they are also in the atmosphere, so there's an evaporative process where they can move into the atmosphere. And there is rain there, and this is the first place we've ever discovered that has rain happening.
Now, in the case of the transient feature that we're talking about here, the magic island, we concluded that there are four real likely explanations for this feature. One is that they are waves. Another is that they are bubbles that are rising up from the sea floor. The third is that they are solids floating on top of the sea. And the fourth is that they are suspended solids, sort of like floating within the sea, two to three centimeter size solids.
When I decided I wanted to become a planetary scientist, one of the reasons I did that was I wanted to be in the room when we were first looking at data that came down and be part of the real active exploration. And so here I was, already just a couple of years into graduate school, and I'd achieved that goal.
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Astronomers have discovered a bright, mysterious geologic object - where one never existed - on Cassini mission radar images of Ligeia Mare, the second-largest sea on Saturn's moon Titan. Scientifically speaking, this spot is considered a "transient feature," but the astronomers have playfully dubbed it "Magic Island."
This may be the first observation of dynamic, geological processes in Titan's northern hemisphere. "This discovery tells us that the liquids in Titan's northern hemisphere are not simply stagnant and unchanging, but rather that changes do occur," said Jason Hofgartner, a Cornell graduate student in the field of planetary sciences, and the paper's lead author.