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It appears flash flooding has paved streambeds in the Xanadu region of Saturn's moon Titan with thousands of sparkling crystal balls of ice, according to scientists with NASA's Cassini spacecraft.
By analyzing the way the terrain has scattered radar beams, scientists deduce the spheres measure at least a few centimeters (inches) and maybe up to a couple of meters (yards) in diameter. The spheres likely originated as part of water-ice bedrock in higher terrain in Xanadu.
"What we believe happened in this area is a lot like what creates polished river rocks on Earth," said Alice Le Gall, a postdoctoral fellow at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and the lead author of the study, which used the Cassini radar instrument. "Bouncing downstream smoothes out the edges of rocks."
As foothill residents know in southern California and other areas, sudden rains can trigger mudslides and flooding at the mountainous fringes of desert areas. Those flows can pick up boulders and debris and tumble them downstream. On Titan, the flows appear to have occurred periodically for eons, on a catastrophic scale. The process on Titan, however, involves rain made of liquid methane and ethane, rather than Earth's water rain. Titan's rocks are believed to be made primarily of water ice frozen into a hard mass about minus 180 degrees Celsius (minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit), rather than Earth's mineral rocks.