Titan forecast: Get ready for hurricanes and choppy seas

Titan's weather may be about to get wild, according to new models of conditions on Saturn's largest moon. Summer is coming to the northern hemisphere of that giant satellite of Saturn, during which time hurricanes and wild seas are predicted to rip across its alien surface.

As the northern half of Titan begins to warm, the winds will gain energy, as they do here on Earth. The wind speeds predicted will be powerful enough to raise waves on Titan's seas. Although calm by terrestrial standards, the predicted winds of around two miles per hour, accompanied by six-inch waves are dramatic for Titan. Astronomers monitoring the situation are watching closely for the formation of these waves on the distant moon's frigid seas.

Alex Hayes of Cornell University has created a new model predicting precisely this occurrence. His new technique employs data concerning the gravity on Titan (about 1/7 that of the Earth), the density ratio between the atmosphere and seas, and surface tension of the alien oceans.

"[T]he wind speeds predicted during northern spring and summer approach those necessary to generate wind waves in liquid ethane and/or methane. It may soon be possible to catch a wave in one of the solar system's most exotic locations," Hayes said.

Tetsuya Tokano of the University of Cologne believes that methane could add energy to storm systems on Titan, playing the role that evaporating water does here on Earth. This could add fuel to the weather systems, helping to drive tropical cyclones and hurricanes. These storms could move across the surface of Titan at speeds up to 45 mph. Hurricanes like those the model predicts can only occur if the seas of Titan have a certain mix of ethane and methane. Seeing such systems will confirm the makeup of these alien oceans.

"We know there are weather processes similar to Earth's at work on this strange world, but differences arise due to the presence of unfamiliar liquids like methane," Scott Edgington, deputy project scientist of the Cassini mission at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said.

The Cassini Spacecraft first entered orbit around Saturn in 2004, and the following year, it successfully dispatched a probe to the surface of Titan. The pair arrived when winter conditions prevailed in the northern part of the moon. Summer in the northern hemisphere of Titan is expected to peak in 2017, the same year the Cassini Mission is scheduled to finish.

In many ways, Titan is more like our own world than any other body in the Solar System, including Mars. Studies of the climate on that distant moon may help us better predict weather here on Earth.

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