By Alexis Madrigal

July 31, Wired

Earthlings might be scrambling to find liquid hydrocarbons buried in our planet, but Saturn's moon Titan has plenty to spare.

Scientists say that a dark, smooth surface feature spotted on the moon last year is definitely a lake filled primarily with liquid ethane, a simple hydrocarbon.

"This is the first observation that really pins down that Titan has a surface lake filled with liquid," said the paper's lead author, University of Arizona professor Robert Brown.

The new observations affirm that Titan is one of the likeliest places to look for life in our solar system. Some astrobiologists have speculated that life could develop in the moon's hydrocarbon lakes, although it would have to be substantially different from known life on Earth, which requires liquid water.

Mixed in solution with the ethane, the lake is also believed to contain nitrogen, methane, and a variety of other simple hydrocarbons.

The Cassini-Huygens probe determined the chemical composition of the liquid by the way it reflected light, a technique known as spectrometry that has provided most of our knowledge about other planets' atmospheric compositions.

"It was hard for us to accept the fact that the feature was so black when we first saw it," Brown said. "More than 99.9 percent of the light that reaches the lake never gets out again. For it to be that dark, the surface has to be extremely quiescent, mirror smooth. No naturally produced solid could be that smooth."

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photo: Titan (by Wired)