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Sand on Titan, Saturn's largest moon

This image is from the Space Shuttle mission STS-107 at 283 kilometer altitude.
Image courtesy of Earth Sciences and Image Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center, http://eol.jsc.nasa.gov

The planet Saturn has a moon named Titan, and on this moon, scientists have discovered long and tall rows of sand that look just like sand dunes in the Sahara desert, as well as other deserts in Africa, Australia and Arabia.

There are different kinds of sand dunes on Earth. The sand dunes on Titan look like the dunes that form on parts of the Earth where the wind blows in one direction then in another direction and then back to the first direction and then back to the second direction. If the wind blows in just the right back-and-forth pattern, sand builds up in long parallel lines.

Scientists discovered that the same thing happens on Titan, though the main reason why the wind changes direction on Earth and Titan is different.

"We can see mounds of sand on Titan that are exactly the same size and shape as sand dunes on Earth," said Science author Ralph Lorenz from the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona.

On Titan, all this wind blowing has created long rows of sand that look – from above -- like the shape a kitten might scratch into your arm if it plays too rough. The tallest rows of sand are nearly 500 feet high.

Images taken from a spacecraft named Cassini as it flew by Titan led the scientists to the discovery of Titan's familiar-looking sand dunes.

Now that we know there are sand dunes on Titan, we have new information about Titan's environment. For example, we know that there have been long periods of time without lots of liquid water on the surface of Titan. We know this because the liquid water would have acted like a sand trap and stopped the sand dunes from forming.

Sand castles on Titan? Not so fast. Aside from the fact that there are no people on Titan, the sand isn't exactly like sand on Earth. In fact, scientists are not sure what the sand is made of -- but there are two likely candidates: either ice made of frozen water or tiny clumps of carbon that are similar in their chemical structure to petroleum.

So if you are playing the "sandbox word game" with a friend, imagining a sandbox on Titan will be exciting…

I one the sandbox.
I two the sandbox
I three the sandbox.
I four the sandbox.
I five the sandbox.
I six the sandbox.
I seven the sandbox.

…because when you get to the most important line in the game:


you'll be "eating" tiny bits of ice or carbon!

This research appears in the 05 May 2006 issue of the journal Science.