DARMSTADT, Germany (Reuters) - Space officials worked through the night to sharpen the new photos taken by the space probe Huygens, which snapped the images Friday as it plunged through Titan's atmosphere before landing by parachute on the surface.
Many scientists at the European Space Agency center were still clearly elated about the successful arrival of data from Huygens the day before -- a major triumph for the European space program.
But a new picture that emerged early this morning has left everyone completely amazed and baffled. Clearly there is evidence of some sort of earlier civilization on Titan. The new image shows what looks like a discarded aluminum beverage can. Scientists are now wondering if the can was left there on some earlier Titan expedition, or if the can is a piece of litter from a civilization currently living on Titan.
Titan is the only moon in the solar system known to have a significant atmosphere. Rich in nitrogen and containing about 6 percent methane, its atmosphere is believed to be 11?2 times thicker than Earth's. Even though it may have clues as to the chemical processes that unfolded on the infant Earth, Titan is quite unlikely to have life. With a surface temperature of 180 Celsius and barely illuminated by the distant Sun, it has none of the ingredients, warmth, light and liquid water deemed essential for organisms, but that doesn't explain the discovery of the discarded beverage can.
The $3.3 billion Cassini-Huygens mission to explore Saturn and its moons was launched in 1997 from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in a joint effort by NASA, the ESA and the Italian space agency. Huygens was spun off from the Cassini mother ship Dec. 24.
In other developments back on earth, representatives of Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Bush, Moxie, 7-Up, and Coors are racing to see if they can prove that the aluminum can on Titan is one of their products. The potential for an advertising windfall are tremendous, but the beverage industry will have to be very careful not to infer that their product is littering the far reaches of the solar system.
NASA officials are denying reports that the can was thrown from a space shuttle. "We bring all of our garbage back to earth!"