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Titan's Secret Seas

Nov 1, 1999 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:19 AM


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Are astronomers looking for life in all the wrong places? Although Mars hogs a lot of headlines, scientists have been building a case that Saturn's giant moon Titan is covered with oceans of organic chemicals, evidence of complex chemistry similar to what occurred on the young Earth.

Titan's atmosphere and dense smog have kept scientists guessing about what is going on below. Astrophysicist Claire Max of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory recently used the giant Keck I telescope in Hawaii to examine Titan in infrared light, which can pierce the global haze. She and her colleagues then took a series of high-speed snapshots to freeze the blurring caused by atmospheric turbulence, and combined them into a single, sharp image. The new picture shows Titan seemingly divided into bright continents and dark oceans.

Titan's seas probably consist of methane or ethane mixed with more complex organic molecules-liquid natural gas combined with tar, basically. The Cassini spacecraft, now bound for Saturn, will drop a probe through Titan's clouds in 2004 for a firsthand look. Meanwhile, Max plans to use the Keck telescope to make a crude map of Titan's composition. "With a probe, you get lots and lots of data about just one place," Max says. "We hope to survey the entire surface."

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