- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 4, 2004

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — Scientists yesterday released what they called the best pictures yet of the frozen surface of Saturn’s enormous moon Titan but said they were puzzled that the Cassini spacecraft hadn’t glimpsed any evidence of liquids.

The latest images of Titan revealed a single set of clouds about the size of Arizona and dark and light shapes across the moon that the imaging team continued to analyze.

The shots of the moon’s surface features were taken during Cassini’s first pass Friday at a distance of about 200,000 miles.

“It’s different from anything we’ve ever seen before,” imaging scientist Elizabeth Turtle said. “We’re still trying to understand the surface of Titan.”

Scientists believe the moon could have chemical compounds much like those that existed on Earth billions of years ago, before life appeared.

Big enough to be a planet in its own right, Titan has an atmosphere 1 times as dense as Earth’s, containing organic — meaning carbon-based — compounds. Scientists believe there could be hydrocarbon seas or lakes.

Miss Turtle said initial data analysis suggested the moon is the site of some type of geologic activity that could include wind and erosion and development of lakes or rivers.

Kevin Baines, a member of the visual and infrared spectrometer team, said scientists were disappointed that they hadn’t seen evidence of liquids.

“We thought we’d see some flashes, and we haven’t seen any. So we’re a little perplexed,” he said after a news conference at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

Among the new pictures released were four images of a cluster of clouds near Titan’s south pole that are believed to be composed of methane. They were the only brightly distinct spots on otherwise fuzzy images of Titan.

“Someone likened it to a melting ice cream sundae,” Miss Turtle said.

There will be many more chances to uncover the face of Titan during Cassini’s planned four-year tour. The spacecraft will make 45 more flybys of the moon and then send a probe into its atmosphere in January. The closest flyby comes in October.

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