By Jade McDowell
A team of scientists has mapped out the sand dunes of Titan, Saturn?s biggest moon, in order to study wind patterns on the moon?s surface.
Using four years? worth of radar images from the Cassini spacecraft, the team, which includes BYU professor Jani Radebaugh, created a detailed map of the dunes. The map is being used to study which way the wind blows, something that has been difficult in the past due to a lack of clouds to signal wind patterns.
Radebaugh said the black and white radar images are the best way to map Titan?s surface because the moon is obscured by a thick orange haze. The atmosphere doesn?t interfere with the radar like it does with other imaging techniques.
The dunes show up as dark spots on the moon?s surface. Scientists believe these dunes are composed of hydrocarbon particles that have ?snowed? from the atmosphere.
?We think they look like hot chocolate powder,? Radebaugh said.
She said the idea of using dunes as weather vanes has been applied before on Mars, where the sand dunes have been frozen in place for a long time. The idea works better on Titan because the dunes are still changing.
According to the NASA Web site, most of the dunes run from east to west, indicating that previous models of western surface winds are incorrect. There are also more dunes at the equator, indicating that drier conditions exist there than at the poles.
An understanding of wind direction will be important to future Titan missions that could involve using balloons to carry equipment.
Radebaugh said scientists are studying Saturn?s largest moon because it is similar to Earth in many ways, despite being much colder and made up of different materials.
?It?s a totally alien body but it reminds us of Earth,? she said. ?We want to know why.?
Radebaugh said she got involved with the project as a post-doctorate at the University of Arizona and was able to continue her research once she began teaching at BYU as a professor of planetary geology.
Chris Savage, a geology major from Denver who is also working with the Cassini data, said ultimately their goal is to apply their findings to sand dunes on Earth.
?Deserts cover a significant part of Earth, but we don?t know much about how they formed,? he said. ?If we know what happened then, we can predict what will happen in the future.?