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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lakefront Property ... on Titan?

It has taken nine years, hundreds of millions of dollars and a huge amount of effort, but planetary scientists have finally found another place with topography quite like Earth's.

On July 22, they gathered around a screen at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and saw the first detailed pictures of the high latitudes of Titan, one of the moons of Saturn. The images were eerily familiar. What the scientists saw looked like dunes, hills, valleys and -- most unusually -- rivers running into lakes. If further studies prove that the dark, ovoid features on the vast landscape are indeed lakes, Titan will be the only body in the solar system besides Earth possessing that geological feature.

Titan's surface temperature, however, averages minus 144 degrees Celsius. The landscape, carved by wind and a constant drizzle, is made up largely of ice, not rock. It takes nearly 30 years for Saturn to orbit the sun, so each of Titan's seasons is a little more than seven years long.

The liquid that falls from the sky isn't water. It is some form of liquid hydrocarbon -- possibly methane or natural gas. "It is almost a parody of the Earth," said Jonathan Lunine, a professor of planetary science at the University of Arizona.

Elsewhere in the solar system -- on Mars, for instance -- there may once have been the cycles of weather that still exist on Earth. They ended billions of years ago. But they are still taking place on Titan, which is nearly 10 times as far away from the sun as Earth. "This tells us that we have to go a very long way from Earth to find the processes we have here," Lunine said.

The revelation comes thanks to the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft, which lifted off from Cape Canaveral on Oct. 15, 1997. Cassini's mission, which is overseen by NASA, is the work of 17 nations. The European Space Agency built and contributed a mechanical explorer called the Huygens Probe, which parachuted onto Titan's surface on Jan. 14, 2005. Data from the probe revealed the methane drizzle reported last week.

Like Earth, Titan has a smog problem. Hydrocarbons evaporate off Titan's surface and recondense in clouds. The molecules react with sunlight, just as happens in Earth's smoggy cities. Because there is little oxygen on Titan, the compounds are even more unappealing.

"Ethane, acetylene, benzene, hydrogen cyanide -- things that go out the fume hood of an organic chemistry lab so that people don't drop dead," Lunine said.