Out There, where it rains gasoline and snow darkens the landscape.

IT WAS  a cloudy day on Titan. And that was clear on the morning of Nov.5 when Sebastien Rodriguez, an astronomer at the Uiversite Paris Cite, downloaded the first images of Saturn's biggest moon taken by NASA's James Webb Space Telescope.

He saw what looked like a large cloud near Kraken Mare, a 1,000-foot-deep sea in Titan's north polar region.

''What a wake-up this morning,'' he said in an email to his team. ''I think we're seeing a cloud!''

That set off  a kind of a weather emergency among astronomers, sending them scrambling to learn more.

Titan has long been a jewel of astronomers' curiosities. Less than half the size of Earth, it has its own dense atmosphere thick with methane and nitrogen.

When it rains on Titan, it rains gasoline; when it snows, the drifts are black as coffee grounds. Its lakes and streams are full of liquid methane and ethane. Beneath its frozen sludge-like crust is an ocean of water and ammonia.

Would-be astrobiologists have wondered if the chemistry that prevailed during the early years of Earth is being recreated in the slushy mounds of Titan.

The potential precursors of life make the smoggy world [ where the surface temperature is minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 180 Celsius] a long-shot hope for the discovery of alien chemistry.

To that end, missions are being planned to Titan, including sending a nuclear-powered drone named Dragonfly to hope around the moon of Saturn by 2034 as well as more notional voyages like sending a submarine to explore its oceans. [Dennis Overbye]


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