Sunday, May 09, 2004

Preliminary scans failed to detect a stately pleasure dome.

The NASA space probe Cassini has returned its first pictures of the Saturnine moon Titan, capturing views of a bright region on the moon's surface that has been dubbed "Xanadu". Titan is one of the most mysterious bodies in the Solar System; its surface is shrouded in methane-rich smog, leading astronomers to conjecture that conditions on Titan now may be similar to those on Earth before the evolution of life (the "prebiotic soup").

Cassini enters Saturnine orbit on July 1, and it will train its cameras on Titan the next day; but the big event on Titan is set for next year, when Cassini will dispatch a smaller probe -- Huygens -- that will, if all goes according to plan, actually drop into the Titan atmosphere and possibly even splash down in the moon's seas of methane.

[Insert obligatory paean to Carl Sagan here.]

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