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Piercing Titan's smoggy veil

Images give new insights about Saturn's methane-bound moon.

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It's "Titan or Bust" for Saturn's newest satellite, Cassini, and its 700-pound sidekick probe Huygens.

A weekend's worth of stunning images from the spacecraft as it began to orbit Saturn - including a distant flyby of a moon that one scientist terms "a deranged version of Earth" - have left scientists elated but also confused.

Saturn's rings and its moon Titan may have taken center stage. But scientists also detected an event that may hold clues to the birth and death of the rings. And the new information is whetting researchers' appetites for two more Titan encounters. During the second of these encounters, perhaps in late December, Europe's Huygens probe is slated to parachute through Titan's atmosphere and land on its surface in what promises to be a 2-1/2 hour tour de force.

In the meantime, Cassini-Huygens already has given planetary scientists an eye-opening performance.

"In one weekend, we've just turned everything we've learned from ground-based and Hubble [telescope] observations on its head," says Mark Leese, program manager for the Huygens probe's surface science package.

On Thursday, as it left Saturn's ring system, Cassini buzzed past Titan some 210,600 miles above its surface, yielding the closest look yet at the moon's surface.

Tectonic evidence on Titan

Using optical cameras with special filters to pierce Titan's smoggy veil, scientists detected large patches of bright and dark surfaces that hint at its general terrain. At least one circular feature - perhaps an enormous impact crater - emerged in the images, while other features appeared as broad lines.

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