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Saturn's moon resembles a primitive Earth


http://www.int.iol.co.za/

Paris - A historic mission to Titan, Saturn's largest moon, has revealed a chemical hell of great complexity which somewhat resembles the forces that helped sculpt the infant Earth, scientists said Wednesday.

In its parachute-braked descent to Titan's surface on January 14, the European Space Agency (ESA) probe Huygens sent back pictures of a world bathed in an orange photochemical smog and a landscape gouged by rivers of methane.

Using an onboard gas analyser that took samples and heated them to 600C, Huygens found that Titan's clouds are seeded with particles made from complex organic molecules containing carbon and nitrogen.

These compounds are generated in the methane-rich atmosphere and are eventually brought to the surface by wind and rain.

The winds appear to blow in a distinct system of layers, whose speeds range from 450km per hour above an altitude of 120km to just walking pace at surface level.

The temperature on Titan is -179C - so cold that the moon has lakes and rivers of highly flammable, natural gas, the researchers said.

Their analyses were published in the British science journal Nature and presented by scientists at ESA headquarters here.

As to where the methane comes from, the likely source is possibly a big store of underground carbon, released by geological activity.

In a review, also carried in Nature, University of Hawaii astronomer Tobias Owen said the overall impression of Titan is of an early Earth that failed to develop any further because it lacked the essential ingredients of light, heat and water.

"Because of its immense distance from the Sun, Titan's development was frozen at a very early stage N where it will remain until the Sun develops into a red giant star and melts it," said Owen.

Huygens was launched from its mother craft, the US-Italian orbiter Cassini, on December 25, 2004 after a trip of more than seven years.

The probe took two hours, 28 minutes to descend to Titan's surface, where it landed in an area that looked like a dry river or lakebed and had the consistency of loose wet sand.

It survived for another 69 minutes, transmitting data that will be analysed for years, before it fell silent. - Sapa-AFP

posted: 12/29/2005

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