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Tuesday, 7 April, 1998, 18:39 GMT 19:39 UK
Has Titan got answers to life in space?
Saturn and spacecraft
Saturn and its moons are becoming the focus for scientists looking for life
Scientists say the discovery of water vapour on Saturn's largest moon increases the chances we are not alone in the Universe.

Using a pioneering European telescope which orbits the Earth, astronomers have confirmed long-held theories about Titan.

Scientists believe the discovery will help them better understand what the Earth was like billions of years ago and will also help the search for life in space.

Infrared Space Observatory
Iso has revolutionised astronomy, say scientists
A team from the Infra-red Space Observatory (Iso) studying Titan found the moon has a thick atmosphere of orange clouds.

These clouds contain organic chemicals similar to compounds which gave rise to life on Earth four billion years ago.

Athena Coustenis, a Paris-based astronomer in the Iso team, said: "Water vapour makes Titan much richer. We knew there was carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide in Titan's atmosphere, so we expected water vapour too.

"Now that we believe we have found it, we can expect to better understand the organic chemistry taking place on Titan and also the sources of oxygen in the Saturnian system."

Dr Paul Murdin, of the British National Space Centre, said: "Perhaps everywhere we go, if it is not too hot and not too cold, we will find some sort of biology of simple life, or perhaps advanced life like ourselves."

Probe launched

Scientists studying Titan are looking forward to the arrival of the Huygens probe in the area in 2004.

Huygens probe
Huygens will crash down on Titan in six years from now
The probe, built by the European Space Agency, will be released by the Cassini spacecraft into Titan's atmosphere.

Huygens will send invaluable data back to Earth to further our knowledge of the moon which could be this Solar System's best chance of supporting life outside of the Earth.

The Iso telescope is considered a revolution in astronomy. Launched into a near-equatorial orbit in 1995, it detects light at the infra-red end of the spectrum and can discover stars and galaxies invisible to normal optical telescopes.

nebula
Iso can look deep inside star nebulae
Scientists said it had exceeded all their expectations and even penetrated dust clouds to reveal the birth of young stars.

A team from Imperial College London used the 4.5-metre- (5-ft-) long telescope to discover galaxies which are so far away the Universe was only a third of its present age when light left them 10 billion years ago.

Astronomers have also witnessed "starbursts" formed by galaxies colliding.

Roger Bonnet, director of science at the European Space Agency, said: "It has given us wonderful insights into cool and hidden places in the Universe, and into the origins of water and other materials to which we owe our very existence."

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