Mystery island vanishes on Saturn's moon Titan

Researchers speculate on the strange case of a missing island on Titan that disappeared from photographs over just a few days.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read

Titan's magic island
The "magic island" is circled in red. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

Strange happenings are afoot on Saturn's fascinating moon Titan.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has conducted some flybys, collecting data along the way. In July 2013, the craft's radar captured images of the Ligeia Mare, a large sea on Titan that's mainly composed of liquid methane. Researchers noticed what looked like a bright little island on the sea's surface, a feature that had not been seen in previous images. That island then completely vanished in images taken a couple weeks later.

Titan is not exactly known for sudden landscape changes. It's currently on a very slow approach to its summer solstice in 2017 and hints of waves on the moon's lakes were only recently observed earlier this year.

The case of the missing geologic object is the subject of a paper titled "Transient features in a Titan sea" published this week in the journal Nature Geoscience. Cornell planetary sciences graduate student Jason Hofgartner is the paper's lead author.

The researchers are calling the finding a "magic island," though the real magic is probably due to weather or other natural phenomena on the moon, which is known for sporting some Earth-like mountain, lake, and dune features.

Here are the possible explanations: 1) Rising winds creating waves that cause the radar to read a ghost image of an island. 2) Bubbling gases rising from below. 3) Warming temperatures pushing solids up to the surface of the sea. 4) Solid materials that are simply suspended in the sea's liquid.

"Likely, several different processes -- such as wind, rain and tides -- might affect the methane and ethane lakes on Titan. We want to see the similarities and differences from geological processes that occur here on Earth. Ultimately, it will help us to understand better our own liquid environments here on the Earth," Hofgartner says.

This could be a good time to launch a wacky new theory about the TV show "Lost." Perhaps the island was actually located on Titan and all those characters were alien visitors. That wasn't purgatory at the end. That was them all returning to the mothership.

While scientists will continue to ponder the "magic island" phenomenon, we might have to wait to get definitive answers when we eventually send more advanced missions to the intriguing moon.

Tita's polar vortex is visible near the bottom of this image. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

(Via BBC News)