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Mystery of Titan's 'magic' disappearing islands, solved

It's not quite the alien equivalent of Dubai, with artificial islands rising from the sea. Instead, something else is bubbling up on Saturn's moon.

Images on the left show Cassini's views of Titan's "magic island" disappearing and re-emerging over time.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell


One of the weirdest places in the solar system is slowly being de-mystified.

Saturn's moon Titan, home to large lakes that are probably combustible, was also seen as hosting large islands that seem to magically disappear and then re-emerge at random with a new look.

If you were hoping some alien race with super powers or super-advanced technology could be to blame for the phenomenon, I'm afraid I have to burst your bubble by reporting that bursting bubbles are the actual culprit.

Radar images sent back by NASA's Cassini orbiter in 2013 showed something odd in Titan's Ligeia Mare sea: ephemeral bright regions dubbed "magic islands." But now researchers from the University of Reims in France say that large bubbles fizzing up from the depths of the sea, which contains a mix of nitrogen, ethane and methane, are to blame.


In a paper published Tuesday in Nature Astronomy, the scientists analyzed conditions observed on Titan and determined that pressures and temperatures in the depths of the hydrocarbon sea might make the mix unstable, causing nitrogen bubbles -- up to over an inch in diameter -- to make their way to the surface.

Titan is one of the only moons in the solar system that actually has a significant atmosphere and its own weather patterns. This means that such cycles could influence the conditions causing the sea to bubble up and even spread the phenomenon over large areas, which then show up in Cassini's images as areas of brightness that come and go.

In other words, sorry alien terraforming fans, but it looks like Titan's magic islands are more likely one of the nastiest combustible carbonated concoctions we've seen nature create so far.

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