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Watching for epidemics

timeters of something the consistency of wet sand or clay. His most colorful analogy was a crème brûlée.

Methane seas may yet turn up, but Titan already would seem to have all the parts of a "methylogical cycle" that is analogous— in sometimes strange ways—to the hydro-logic cycles of Earth and ancient Mars. Titan's atmosphere contains methane and photochemically produced ethane—analogous to Earth's water vapor—that condense into hydrocarbon clouds. Some clouds must rain onto the surface to erode the channels, although just how hydrocarbons would erode the highly insoluble water ice remains to be worked out. The rain would presumably also pick up the many meters of dark photochemical goo that settles from the haze layer over the eons. That would explain the dark stain on canyon floors and outwash plains. Once the hydrocarbon rivers spread across the wide, flat plains, they would drop any heavy sediment in fans. If the fluids mostly evaporated away to complete the cycle, they would leave their load of organic goo the way water leaves its dissolved salts on a salt flat. Some fluid would likely soak into the plain to become "ground hydrocarbons."

All this sounds to Pappalardo like a desert environment on Earth. It doesn't rain often in deserts, but when it does, the rain can be torrential. That could well be the case on Titan, notes Jonathan Lunine of UA, a Huygens interdisciplinary scientist. Cassini has found few if any clouds outside the south pole region, but ground-based astronomers have seen one cloud outburst at mid latitudes in recent years. That level of activity could be all that's needed to shape a familiar-looking world.

-Richard A. Kerr

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