Cassini spacecraft findings from Saturn moon have NASA `mystified'

Titan atmospheric data, images present puzzle

October 28, 2004|By John Johnson | John Johnson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PASADENA, Calif. - After staying up much of the night analyzing the first close-up images of Titan's smog-shrouded surface, groggy scientists admitted yesterday that they were befuddled by much of what they were seeing of Saturn's strange moon.

Was that ice on top of the continent-sized landmass they've named Xanadu? Were the dark patches along its western boundary a gasoline slush? What are the clouds doing at the south pole? And where is the methane coming from?

There were few answers forthcoming despite the bounty of images and other data sent by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Cassini spacecraft late Tuesday.

"We're still mystified and not quite sure what we're looking at," mission scientist Carolyn Porco said. "There isn't much we're definitely confident about."

Assembled at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the team of scientists presented some early findings from Cassini, which passed within 745 miles of the second largest moon in the solar system. That was close enough to part the haze and suck up some of the upper atmosphere as well as record images.

There were fewer clouds than expected, though the ones they found covered as much as 600 miles of territory. More unusual organic compounds were found in the upper atmosphere than expected, including benzene, diacetylene and propyne, making Titan's atmosphere one of the most diverse in the solar system. With all the hydrocarbons, it would be a very flammable place if there were oxygen.

Nitrogen is the largest constituent of the atmosphere, just as on Earth, which is why scientists think Titan is a good model for what early Earth was like.

The scientific team also believes that the moon has lost three-quarters of its original atmosphere, though they don't know whether it happened gradually or all at once through some sort of cataclysmic event. There also is evidence that certain atmospheric compounds are being replaced, possibly through leakage from a giant underground methane lake.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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