From: Roger Greenway, ENN
Published December 21, 2009 10:52 AM

NASA Image Confirms Lake on Titan

NASA has released a stunning photograph of Saturn’s moon Titan showing a glint of sunlight off a lake.

The Cassini Spacecraft captured the first flash of sunlight reflected off a lake confirming the presence of liquid on the part of the moon dotted with many large, lake-shaped basins.

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Cassini scientists had been looking for the glint, also known as a specular reflection, since the spacecraft began orbiting Saturn in 2004. But Titan's northern hemisphere, which has more lakes than the southern hemisphere, has been veiled in winter darkness. The sun only began to directly illuminate the northern lakes recently as it approached the equinox of August 2009, the start of spring in the northern hemisphere. Titan's hazy atmosphere also blocked out reflections of sunlight in most wavelengths. This image was captured on July 8, 2009, using Cassini's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer.

"This one image communicates so much about Titan -- thick atmosphere, surface lakes and an otherworldliness," said Bob Pappalardo, Cassini project scientist, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "It's an unsettling combination of strangeness yet similarity to Earth. This picture is one of Cassini's iconic images."

Titan, Saturn's largest moon, has captivated scientists because of its many similarities to Earth. Scientists have theorized for 20 years that Titan's cold surface hosts seas or lakes of liquid hydrocarbons, making it the only other planetary body besides Earth believed to harbor liquid on its surface. While data from Cassini have not indicated any vast seas, they have revealed large lakes near Titan's north and south poles.

Katrin Stephan, of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Berlin, an associate member of the Cassini visual and infrared mapping spectrometer team, was processing the initial image and was the first to see the glint on July 10th.
"I was instantly excited because the glint reminded me of an image of our own planet taken from orbit around Earth, showing a reflection of sunlight on an ocean," Stephan said. "But we also had to do more work to make sure the glint we were seeing wasn't lightning or an erupting volcano."

The finding shows that the shoreline of Kraken Mare has been stable over the last three years and that Titan has an ongoing hydrological cycle that brings liquids to the surface, said Ralf Jaumann, a visual and infrared mapping spectrometer team member who leads the scientists at the DLR who work on Cassini. Of course, in this case, the liquid in the hydrological cycle is methane rather than water, as it is on Earth.

For more information: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.cfm?release=2009-199&rn=news.xml&rst=2411

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