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A mosaic image of Titan's liquid methane and ethane seas. Photo: JPL-CALTECH / NASA / ASI / USGS

The most complete map to date of Saturn’s moon Titan reveals a mountainous world with a network of liquid methane and ethane lakes and seas connected by underground rivers, writes Lisa Grossman for Science News. Scientists already knew that Titan had something like Earth’s water cycle, but with methane. This is the latest finding from the Cassini mission to show the startling geological complexity of the hazy, gassy moon.

Why it matters: Scientists are very interested in Titan’s geology because they believe the hydrocarbon-rich planet has the potential to support some form of life. An interconnected water system, like the one on Earth, could influence the way any such life would develop. “Looking for actual evidence that the lakes could be communicating was a fundamental question from Cassini,” study coauthor Alexander Hayes tells Grossman, “This is the final paper that gives the best evidence that it exists.”

What they did: When Cassini flew over Titan 13 years ago, the robot scanned the planet and measured elevation. They used radar to identify lakes, seas and mountain ranges.

What they found: When they analyzed the altitude of Titan’s largest bodies of liquid methane, they found they were all at about the same level, like sea level on Earth. For them to stay level, they need to be connected. The map also details mountain ranges across the planet, including the southern hemisphere, and reveals high-altitude dry lakebeds that could be sinkholes or the remnants of volcanoes.

What’s next: The map, which was published December 2 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, will likely be used by other scientists studying the Saturnian moon’s geology. “Within hours of the paper actually being available online, people we’ve never collaborated with started contacting [Hayes’ co-author, Paul Corlies] to ask how to get the data,” Hayes told Grossman.

Go deeper

Republicans pledge to set aside differences and work with Biden

President Biden speaks to Sen. Mitch McConnell after being sworn in at the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. Photo: Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty Images

Several Republicans praised President Biden's calls for unity during his inaugural address on Wednesday and pledged to work together for the benefit of the American people.

Why it matters: The Democrats only have a slim majority in the Senate and Biden will likely need to work with the GOP to pass his legislative agenda.

The Biden protection plan

Joe Biden announces his first run for the presidency in June 1987. Photo: Howard L. Sachs/CNP/Getty Images

The Joe Biden who became the 46th president on Wednesday isn't the same blabbermouth who failed in 1988 and 2008.

Why it matters: Biden now heeds guidance about staying on task with speeches and no longer worries a gaffe or two will cost him an election. His staff also limits the places where he speaks freely and off the cuff. This Biden protective bubble will only tighten in the months ahead, aides tell Axios.

Bush labels Clyburn the “savior” for Democrats

House Majority Whip James Clyburn takes a selfie Wednesday with former President George W. Bush. Photo: Patrick Semansky-Pool/Getty Images

Former President George W. Bush credited Rep. James Clyburn with being the "savior" of the Democratic Party, telling the South Carolinian at Wednesday's inauguration his endorsement allowed Joe Biden to win the party's presidential nomination.

Why it matters: The nation's last two-term Republican president also said Clyburn's nod allowed for the transfer of power, because he felt only Biden had the ability to unseat President Trump.