The Best Moon in the Solar System May Be More Like Earth Than We Thought

  • According to new research, there may be dust storms on Saturn’s moon Titan (1).
  • Scientists analyzed Cassini mission data and created simulations of Titan’s surface, which revealed the swirling funnel clouds could form on the moon.
  • Dust devils are found here on Earth and on Mars, too, where they can stretch as far as 5 miles high.

In 2034, NASA’s Dragonfly mission will touch down on Saturn’s moon Titan—our pick for the best damn moon in the entire solar system. The spacecraft will sink through the moon’s thick atmosphere (just like the Huygens probe did 15 years ago) to explore the distant world’s rivers, lakes, seas and skies.

Titan is a familiar world. It’s the only other body we’ve discovered so far that has liquid on its surface—only instead of liquid water like we have here on Earth, Titan is covered in lakes and rivers of methane and ethane.

But that’s not the only similarity the moon has to Earth. Last month, astronomers reported Dragonfly might find another Earth-like feature on Titan: dust devils.

These rotating columns of air form when small regions on a surface surface heat up. The hot air rises, and, if captured by wind, forms a swirling column, sweeping dust and other debris along with it. On Earth, dust devils are mostly innocuous, sliding somewhere between nuisance and novelty—like this one that formed on a Brooklyn baseball diamond in 2014.

We’ve also spotted dust devils on Mars. They’re most common during the Martian spring and summer, when temperatures on the planet’s surface are warm. The largest dust devils ever observed on the red planet reached heights of up to 5 miles, according to the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum. They leave criss-crossing streaks across the planet’s surface—some as long as 2.5 miles long and nearly 100 feet wide.

But unlike most of the dust devils here on Earth, the electrically charged funnel clouds can cause serious damage, with crackling lightning and winds speeds of up to 70 miles per hour.

“The atmospheric pressure on Mars is only 1 percent that at sea level [on Earth], so you wouldn’t feel much wind against you,” atmospheric scientist Mark T. Lemmon, of Texas A&M University, told NASA. “But you’d still be pinged by high-speed material.” Ouch.

Whether you’re exploring Mars, the moon, or Titan, dust is always going to be a concern. On Mars, dust devils can funnel dust high into the atmosphere, seeding larger storms. In 2018, NASA’s Opportunity Rover was overcome by a massive dust storm, which left a thick coating of dust on the rover’s solar panels, rendering them useless. Eventually, with no hope of it ever awakening, teary-eyed NASA employees shut the rover down completely.