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Spacecraft Spots Lakes on Saturn's Moon Titan

July 29, 2006|From the Associated Press

A cluster of large hydrocarbon lakes has been spotted on Titan, Saturn's planet-size moon, scientists reported this week.

The lakes near Titan's north pole were spied during a Cassini spacecraft flyby last weekend within 590 miles of the moon.

Researchers counted about a dozen lakes six to 62 miles wide. Some lakes, which appeared as dark patches in radar images, were connected by channels; others had tributaries flowing into them. Several were dried up. The ones that weren't probably contained a liquid mix of methane and ethane.

"It was a real potpourri," said Cassini scientist Jonathan Lunine of the University of Arizona.

Titan is one of two moons in the solar system known to possess a significant atmosphere similar to that of primordial Earth. But scientists have long puzzled over the source of its hazy atmosphere, which is rich in nitrogen and methane.

Scientists believe methane gas breaks up in Titan's atmosphere and forms smog clouds that rain methane on the surface. But the source of methane inside the moon is still unknown, Lunine said.

Last year, Cassini found what appeared to be a liquid hydrocarbon lake about the size of Lake Ontario on Titan's south pole. But the recent flyby marked the first time the spacecraft spied numerous lakes.

Cassini's next Titan encounter will be Sept. 7, 620 miles away.

Cassini, funded by NASA and the European and Italian space agencies, was launched in 1997 and took seven years to reach Saturn to explore the ringed planet and its many moons. The mission is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge.

Cassini's accompanying probe, Huygens, developed by the European Space Agency, touched down on Titan in 2005.

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