On the shore of a frigid sea

Unlike Earth's shorelines, the alien shorelines of Saturn's big moon Titan are lapped by an ultra-cold liquid hydrocarbon sea, perhaps liquid ethane-that's enough hydrocarbon material to crack and refine into fuel for multiple planetary civilizations, using combustion engines, for many thousands of years.

We can't really call Titan's ethane a "fossil fuel"-it's more like a cosmic fuel since low temperature hydrocarbon compounds appear to abound throughout the universe. Digital images transmitted to Earth from the unmanned Cassini spacecraft's flyby of Titan showed clear evidence of a hydrocarbon lapped coastline in the moon's southern hemisphere.

According to NASA's Carolina Martinez, "Hints that this area was once wet, or currently has liquid present, are evident."

"We've been looking for evidence of oceans or seas on Titan for some time. This radar data is among the most telling evidence so far for a shoreline," said Steve Wall, radar deputy team leader from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Cassini's amazing pictures reveal a shoreline dividing two regions roughly 1,060 by 106 miles.

"This is the area where liquid or a wet surface has most likely been present, now or in the recent past," said Wall. "Titan probably has episodic periods of rainfall or massive seepages of liquid from the ground."

"We also see a network of channels that run across the bright terrain, indicating that fluids, probably liquid hydrocarbons, have flowed across this region," said Ellen Stofan, Cassini's radar expert.

The brightness patterns in the dark area indicate that it may once have been flooded with liquid that may now have partially receded. Bay-like features also lead scientists to speculate that the bright-dark boundary is most likely a shoreline, Martinez said.

Larry Soderblom with the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Ariz., said, "It looks as though fluid flowed in these channels, cutting deeply into the icy crust of Titan. Some of the channels extend over 100 kilometers (60 miles). Some of them may have been fed by springs, while others are more complicated networks that were likely filled by rainfall."

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