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Titan Twisted In Frigid Imitation Of Earth
Saturn's haze-enshrouded moon Titan turns out to have much in common with Earth in the way that weather and geology shape its terrain, according to two pieces of research to be presented at the XXVII General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Wind, rain, volcanoes, tectonics and other Earth-like processes all sculpt features on Titan's complex and varied surface in an environment more than 100 degrees C colder on average than Antarctica.
"It is really surprising how closely Titan's surface resembles Earth's," says Rosaly Lopes, a planetary geologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, who is presenting the results on Friday, 7 August. "In fact, Titan looks more like the Earth than any other body in the Solar System, despite the huge differences in temperature and other environmental conditions."
The joint NASA/ESA/ASI Cassini-Huygens mission has revealed details of Titan's geologically young surface, showing few impact craters, and featuring mountain chains, dunes and even "lakes". The RADAR instrument on the Cassini orbiter has now allowed scientists to image a third of Titan's surface using radar beams that pierce the giant moon's thick, smoggy atmosphere. There is still much terrain to cover, as the aptly named Titan is one of the biggest moons in the Solar System, larger than the planet Mercury and approaching Mars in size.
Titan has long fascinated astronomers as the only moon known to possess a thick atmosphere, and as the only celestial body other than Earth to have stable pools of liquid on its surface. The many lakes that pepper the northern polar latitudes, with a scattering appearing in the south as well, are thought to be filled with liquid hydrocarbons, such as methane and ethane.