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Saturn's Titan moon called frozen in youth

Data suggest cold thwarted area's potential for life

WASHINGTON -- Data from the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft suggest that Titan, a moon of Saturn, is a world with the potential of life that was frozen in its youth, prevented by deep cold from ever developing into a livelier place.

''Titan is the Peter Pan of our solar system. It's a little world that never grew up," said Tobias Owen of the University of Hawaii, a member of an international team monitoring the findings of the Huygens spacecraft sitting on Titan's surface.

The temperature of Titan, minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit, prevented the chemical reactions that are thought to have occurred on Earth, possibly leading to the evolution of life, said Owen, one in a group of researchers presenting papers yesterday on Titan at the national meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

''All of the elements that we are made of are there," Owen said. ''But all of the water is frozen solid. There's no oxygen available. If it could warm up, it would be beautiful."

Ice seems to form the bedrock of Titan, he said, and there is some suggestion of cyrovolcanoes -- vents resembling volcanoes that spew forth ice instead of lava.

He said features detected by the Cassini spacecraft, orbiting above Titan, show channels resembling volcanic features on Earth, but they may have been carved by creeping ice, not molten rock.

Owen said the evidence for ice volcanoes on Titan is ''shaky," but it is the leading theory to explain some of the features seen on the body.

''We're not expecting to find life on Titan. It's just too cold," Owen said. ''But we expect to find the primordial ice cream," the complex of chemicals that could be the precursors to life.

Cassini-Huygens is a joint project of NASA and the European Space Agency. The combined craft was launched in 1997 and arrived in orbit of Saturn last year. Huygens, a lander developed and controlled by the ESA, touched down earlier this year.

Early studies indicate that Titan is covered with pools of methane, an organic chemical maintained on the surface by deep cold.

Owen said that Huygens apparently landed in a ''mud" formed by methane and that heat from the craft created a cloud of the gas that instruments quickly analyzed and identified.

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