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Saturn’s moon pictures best yet

Sun., July 4, 2004

PASADENA, Calif. — Scientists on Saturday released what they called the best pictures yet of the frozen surface of Saturn’s enormous moon Titan but said they were puzzled that the Cassini spacecraft hadn’t glimpsed any evidence of liquids.

The latest images of Titan revealed a single set of clouds about the size of Arizona and dark and light shapes across the moon that the imaging team continued to analyze.

The shots of the moon’s surface features were taken during Cassini’s first pass Friday at a distance of about 200,000 miles.

“It’s different from anything we’ve ever seen before,” imaging scientist Elizabeth Turtle said. “We’re still trying to understand the surface of Titan.”

One indistinct circular shape could be a huge crater, and a linear shape could be a hydrocarbon river or a fault line, scientists said.

Scientists believe the moon could have chemical compounds much like those that existed on Earth billions of years ago before life appeared.

Big enough to be a planet in its own right, Titan has an atmosphere 1 1/2 times as dense as Earth’s, containing organic — meaning carbon-based — compounds. Scientists believe there could be hydrocarbon seas or lakes.

Turtle said initial data analysis suggested the moon is the site of some type of geologic activity that could include wind and erosion and development of the lakes or rivers.

Kevin Baines, a member of the visual and infrared spectrometer team, said scientists were disappointed that they hadn’t seen evidence of liquids through reflections of sunlight on smooth surfaces of the moon.

“We thought we’d see some flashes, and we haven’t seen any. So we’re a little perplexed,” he said after a news conference at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.


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