Dust Devils on Titan

A twelve-mile high dust devil observed on Mars from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Similar dust devils are predicted to occur on Titan. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UA

Dust devils probably occur on Saturn’s moon Titan, according to a new study led by Brian Jackson of Boise State University. Dust devils are convective vortices that transport dust and other fine-grained sediments and are common in desert regions of Earth and on Mars. Because Titan is home to extensive dunes and dust storms, it is logical to presume that dust devils occur there as well. The upcoming NASA mission Dragonfly to Titan will use a rotorcraft to explore Titan’s low latitudes where dunes occur, so it is important to determine whether Dragonfly is likely to encounter or be affected by dust devils.

The authors used observations of Titan’s atmospheric structure, temperature, and humidity from Cassini’s Huygens probe to model the formation of dust devils at Titan’s surface. Based on available data, they determined that the formation of dust devils is likely; however, some poorly known parameters, such as the ambient wind speed and the static charge on organic dust particles, may impede their formation more than expected. While this study determined that Dragonfly is likely to encounter dust devils, it should not be endangered by them. The maximum dust devil wind speed estimated for Titan is roughly equivalent to the rated wind speed for small commercial quadcopters (remote-controlled aircraft or drones) on Earth, meaning that the much heavier Dragonfly drone should not be adversely affected. READ MORE