The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Saturn sundae tickles science

Pasadena (California), July 4 (Reuters): The Cassini spacecraft pierced the haze enveloping Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, to reveal surface details that already have shattered theories about its composition, scientists said.

Cassini, launched nearly seven years ago by an international team of scientists, became the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn and its rings and moons during an “orbit insertion” manoeuvre on Wednesday.

The space probe performed so flawlessly during its 3.5 billion-km journey to Saturn that scientists scrapped an orbit correction planned for Saturday.

On its first trip past Titan on Thursday, the robotic probe snapped infrared images that left scientists puzzled. “This is the best view of the surface yet and we don’t know what to make of it,” scientist Elizabeth Turtle said at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Black-and-white photos taken at 340,000 km above Titan’s surface show a murky landscape that Turtle likened to a “melting ice cream sundae” with some fuzzy linear structures that could be mountains, rivers or fault lines.

That scientists were able to discern features other than circular impact craters sugg- ests Titan has geologic activity similar to that of Earth, Turtle said.

“It’s dangerous to interpret a surface we’ve never seen, especially on so little sleep,” she said. “But we can’t resist.”

Scientists will get a better shot at Titan in October, when Cassini descends to 1,200 km to snap close-ups of the moon, whose atmosphere and soil resemble those of primordial Earth and may contain the building blocks of life.

Scientists had believed bright patches on Titan’s surface seen in earlier observations were pure water ice.