Frank Herbert’s Dune tells the story of Paul Atreides, a son of a noble family sent to the hostile desert planet Arrakis to oversee the trade of a mysterious drug called melange (nicknamed “spice”), which gives its consumers supernatural abilities and longevity. Betrayal, chaos, and political infighting ensue.
Imagine standing on Arrakis, surrounded by an ocean of sand. The air is unbreathable, the sky hazy, the landscape mysterious. Sand for miles, as far as the eye can see. You know that several hundred kilometers away is a vast network of canyons that from above, look like they could have been carved by massive worms.
Before you get too excited, it’s important to know that this isn’t the notorious desert planet featured in the Dune novels.
No, this Arrakis is closer to our own world.
This Arrakis is only about 1 billion kilometers from Earth, on a world orbiting Saturn.
We’ve even landed a spacecraft near there.
If you haven’t already guessed, this Arrakis—officially called Arrakis Planitia—belongs to the second-largest moon in our solar system, Titan. Arrakis is a vast, undifferentiated plain of sand, but not sand as we know it. Titan’s sand is made of large organic molecules, which would make it softer and stickier, said Mike Malaska, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.
Malaska likes to imagine that Titan’s hydrocarbon sand, which is actually referred to as tholin, or complex organic gunk, could double as the infamous spice at the center of Dune’s expansive narrative arc.
In the Dune books, spice smells like cinnamon, whereas tholin on Titan “probably smells like bitter almonds…and death,” Malaska said.
Arrakis isn’t the only name from the Dune novels that adorns Titan’s geological features. All of Titan’s named undifferentiated plains and labyrinths (canyon-like features carved into the surface) are named after planets from the Dune series. There’s Buzzell Planitia, named after the “punishment planet” used by an ancient order of women with supernatural abilities. There’s Caladan Planitia, named after the home planet of Dune’s main hero, Paul Atreides. There’s Salusa Labyrinthus, named after a prison planet. And more.
“I am just amazed [at] how much Titan resembles the Arrakis description,” Malaska said. In addition to the vast plains of hydrocarbon sands that stretch across Titan’s surface, the moon’s complex climate of storms and methane rain feel Dune-like. “Titan is Dune.”
And, of course, there are the dunes. Titan’s dune fields circle the moon’s 16,000-kilometer-long equator. The moon has more dunes than Earth has deserts.
Rosaly Lopes, another planetary scientist at JPL, was one of the first people to see Titan’s dunes. She and other Cassini team members were analyzing images from one of the spacecraft’s first flybys of Titan, back in 2005, and they saw weird, curved features on the surface.
“When we first saw the dunes, we didn’t know they were dunes,” Lopes said. It wasn’t until a subsequent Cassini flyby that they confirmed that Titan sported dunes wrapped around its equator.
In fact, Lopes was the first to suggest naming Titan’s plains and labyrinths after planets in the Dune universe back in 2009, although she doesn’t remember exactly how the idea came up. She said it just made sense, considering Titan’s dunes.
Planetary scientists don’t name features until there’s a scientific need for them, Lopes said. A theme must first be chosen, whether it’s mythical birds for interesting areas on the asteroid Bennu, or gods of fire for volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io (Lopes named two of these, Tupan and Monan, after deities of indigenous cultures in her home country of Brazil). There are other literary features across the solar system, like Mercury’s craters named after famous artists and writers.
Although Herbert was originally inspired by sand dunes of the Oregon coast, Malaska imagines that Herbert—and his many readers—could have also been imagining Mars, the only desert-like planet we knew of around the time Dune was published, in 1965. In fact, that same year, NASA made its first successful flyby of Mars with its Mariner 4 spacecraft and humanity got its first close-up look of the Red Planet.
But Titan’s dune fields are unique in the solar system, and it’s only fitting that this mysterious moon bear the name of a revolutionary science fiction universe.
—JoAnna Wendel (@JoAnnaScience), Science Writer