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.
A new paper by Tetsuya Tokano in press with the journal Aeolian Research seeks to explain the paradox. It explains that seasonal changes appear to reverse wind patterns on Titan for a short period. These gusts, which occur intermittently for perhaps two years, sweep west to east and are so strong they do a better job of transporting sand than the usual east-to-west surface winds. Those east-to-west winds do not appear to gather enough strength to move significant amounts of sand.
Jia-Rui C. Cook 818-354-0850
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.