Blowing in the Wind: Cassini Helps with Dune Whodunit

The answer to the mystery of dune patterns on Saturn's moon Titan did turn out to be blowing in the wind. It just wasn't from the direction many scientists expected.

Basic principles describing the rotation of planetary atmospheres and data from the European Space Agency's Huygens probe led to circulation models that showed surface winds streaming generally east-to-west around Titan's equatorial belt. But when NASA's Cassini spacecraft obtained the first images of dunes on Titan in 2005, the dunes' orientation suggested the sands and therefore the winds were moving from the opposite direction, or west to east.

Scientists predicted winds in the low latitudes around Titan's equator would blow east-to-west because at higher latitudes the average wind blows west-to-east. The wind forces should balance out, based on basic principles of rotating atmospheres.

Equinoxes occur twice a Titan year, which is about 29 Earth years. During equinox, the sun shines directly over the equator, and heat from the sun creates upwelling in the atmosphere. The turbulent mixing causes the winds to reverse and accelerate. On Earth, this rare kind of wind reversal happens over the Indian Ocean in transitional seasons between monsoons.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL manages the Cassini-Huygens mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL.

The radar instrument was built by JPL and the Italian Space Agency, working with team members from the United States and several European countries. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.