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How the Space Shuttle Works

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This important measurement was made using Cassini's INMS instrument, which detects gases with the goal of determining their composition. INMS was designed to sample the upper atmosphere of Saturn's large, smoggy moon Titan. However, after Cassini's surprising discovery of a tall plume if icy spray erupting from cracks on Enceladus in 2005, planetary scientists turned its detectors to that small moon.



Vast regions of dark dunes also extend across Titan's exotic landscape, especially around its equatorial regions. Unlike Earth's sand, the "sand" that creates Titan's dunes is composed of dark grains of hydrocarbon that resemble coffee grounds. The tall linear dunes of this misty moisty moon-world appear to be quite similar to those seen in the desert of Namibia in Africa. Because Titan's surface is pockmarked by relatively few impact craters, its surface is considered to be quite young. Older surfaces display heavier cratering than more youthful surfaces, whose craters have been "erased" by resurfacing. This resurfacing is caused by processes that cover the scars left by old impacts as time goes by. Our own planet is similar to Titan in this respect. The craters of Earth are erased by the ongoing processes of flowing liquid (water on Earth), powerful winds, and the recycling of Earth's crust as a result of plate-tectonics. These processes also occur on Titan, but in modified forms. In particular, the shifting of the ground resulting from pressures coming from beneath (plate tectonics), also appear to be at work on this veiled moon-world. However, planetary scientists have not seen signs of plates on Titan that are analogous to those of our own planet.



Dr. Rodriguez and his colleagues also spotted a trio of odd equatorial brightenings in infrared images obtained by Cassini during Titan's 2009 northern equinox. At the time, the scientists speculated that the brightenings might also be the same kind of methane clouds observed in tropical areas. However, this proved not to be the case. A later investigation conducted by the astronomers revealed that these brightenings were caused by something entirely different.