Spacecraft finds mile-high mountain range on Saturn moon

December 13, 2006|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn has found a mile-high mountain range on the giant moon Titan, scientists said yesterday.

The range, in the moon's southern hemisphere, is nearly 100 miles long. It is the highest range found on Titan by Cassini, which has been investigating the Saturn moon for two years.

Cassini scientists have dubbed the mountains Titan's Sierra Nevada.

"These mountains are probably hard as rock, made of icy materials, and are coated with different layers of organics," said Larry Soderblom, a Cassini scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Ariz.

The latest Titan discoveries, released yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, resulted from a close fly-by of the moon Oct. 25.

The Cassini-Huygens mission, a cooperative project of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, Calif., and the European and Italian space agencies, has shown Titan to be one of the more unusual bodies in the solar system.

Its rains consist of methane, it has lakes of gasoline-like liquids and cryogenic magma, a pasty concoction of frozen debris, occasionally erupts into the frigid atmosphere.

Layers of organic material referred to as "gunk" by the scientists and made of ice, dust, rain and smoglike substances coat the tops of the mountains, the scientists said at a news briefing.

Besides the mountain range, the latest images revealed dunes and deposits that resemble volcanic flows.

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