U.S. Water News Online
PARIS -- Saturn's planet-size moon Titan has dramatic
weather, with turbulent high-altitude winds, periodic floods of
liquid methane and possibly lightning, scientists said in describing
a world that may look like Earth before life developed.
The European Space Agency's probe landed on Titan in January,
uncovering some mysteries of the methane-rich globe -- the only moon
in the solar system known to have a thick atmosphere. Scientists
presented detailed results of months of study in the online edition
of the journal Nature and at a news conference in Paris.
"It's a very strange fantasy world made of ice, with things like
gasoline and tar that make up the rivers and the lake beds," said
scientist Jonathan Lunine of the University of Arizona, when asked
how he would explain the finding to a child.
"If you try to walk around on it, your feet might get stuck in
some places, you'd slide down into methane rivers in other places,
and you'd better watch out for the ammonia volcanoes," he said. "And
absolutely bring a big heavy coat, because it's really cold -- and
bring a tank of oxygen because there's no oxygen to breathe, but
don't light a match."
Titan, located 740 million miles from Earth, has long intrigued
researchers because it is surrounded by a thick blanket of nitrogen
and methane. Until recently, scientists believed the most likely
explanation for the methane was the presence of a methane-rich sea of
The Huygens probe and its mother ship, Cassini, have offered
evidence against that theory. The $3.3 billion Cassini-Huygens
mission to explore Saturn and its moons was launched in 1997 from
Cape Canaveral, a joint effort involving NASA, ESA and the Italian
Titan's clouds are made from molecules that include carbon and
nitrogen -- compounds generated in photochemical smog and circulated
by rain and the atmosphere, the researchers reported in Nature.
They said there was no reason to believe Titan's methane is a
product of biological activity.
Yet more methane is appearing constantly and may burst from ice
volcanoes or fall as rain, researchers said, describing riverbed and
drainage channels spotted during the craft's descent Jan. 14.
Titan's upper atmosphere is turbulent, with winds blowing mostly
in the direction of its rotation, then slowing down and changing
direction closer to the surface. Electric charges detected in the
atmosphere could be lightning, Lunine said.
The first results from the Huygens probe were released in January.
Black-and-white photos showed a rugged terrain of ridges, peaks,
vein-like channels and apparently dry lakebeds on the moon 740
million miles away.
Scientists have been surprised by a mystery component they cannot
"It's a world, an atmosphere, a surface that is very dynamic, and
perhaps as it seems there is volcanic activity, the interior of Titan
is also no doubt very dynamic," said Jean-Pierre Lebreton, Huygens
Titan's smoggy atmosphere may be similar to that of the primordial
Earth, and scientists believe that studying it could provide clues to
how life began.
Titan shows signs of having "the very first stages of the building
blocks of life," but it's too cold for the process to progress, said
John Zarnecki, a scientist from Open University in Britain.
Temperatures on the surface are 290 degrees below zero.
If the sun one day expands and becomes a red giant, as some
speculate, Titan may warm up, Zarnecki said.
"Maybe in 4 billion years' time, at the end of the sun's life,
maybe Titan will be the new Earth," he said.
The European Space Agency also released details from Mars Express'
first radar sounding of the red planet. Scientists said they have yet
to find any convincing evidence for underground water on Mars -- but
next spring, as the orbiter drifts to warmer areas, they will look
Scientists detected what appears to be a large, underground basin
that may hold subsurface ice, but have not found conclusive signs.
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