A Cloud Forms Over Saturn’s Mysterious Moon

The Cassini probe recently spotted a large cloud system moving over Saturn’s giant moon, Titan. What does it mean for us on Earth?

Saturn’s giant moon Titan is much like Earth, with its nitrogen atmosphere, weather driven by seasonal changes, sand dunes, and liquid lakes on its surface. That is, if Earth was much smaller, deeply cold, completely full of smog, and possessed of lakes of methane and boulders of hard-frozen water.

Yet both its similarities and differences from Earth make Titan very interesting. Like Earth, Titan has weather, with evaporation, clouds, rain, and wind. It’s also the only Solar System body known to have lakes and rivers. Unlike Earth, Titan’s lakes, rain, and weather involve methane instead of water, but the cycle of evaporation and rain are very similar.

However, it’s hard to study Titanian meteorology: the weather changes slowly and subtly, thanks to the much slower pace of seasons and thicker atmosphere. That’s why seeing the formation and motion of a single large cloud system on Titan is exciting. Summer began in the moon’s northern hemisphere recently, but the expected storms (seen in the southern hemisphere earlier) haven’t arrived yet. These clouds, spotted over a methane lake, could be the first sign of summer rains on a distant world.

Cloud watching is important. Clouds carry material—water on Earth, methane on Titan—from one part of the atmosphere to another. They’re a way a world carries liquid from one region to another, in the form of evaporation and rain. A lake may dry up in one region, but a new one can form when rains fill a basin elsewhere. We know very well how that process works on Earth, but Titan’s weather is still mysterious in many ways.

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