PARIS (AFP) - Imagine a place awash with more hydrocarbons than a Texan oilman can dream of and where no one has staked a single claim -- all that energy is just going begging.
The problem: this massive reserve is at least 1.2 billion kilometers (750 million miles) away from Earth, on a tiny inhospitable world where on a warm day it's minus 179 degrees Celsius (minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit).
New findings by the mission to Titan, reported on Wednesday by the European Space Agency (ESA), say Saturn's orange moon has hundreds of times more liquid hydrocarbons than all the known oil and natural gas reserves on Earth.
Methane and ethane fall like rain from the sky, forming massive lakes and seas, while complex organic molecules called tholins are believed to make up Titan's oily dunes, ESA said in a press release.
"Titan is just covered in carbon-bearing material. It's a giant factory of organic chemicals," said scientist Ralph Lorenz.
Lorenz, of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, is a member of a team poring over radar data sent back by the US space probe Cassini, which dispatched a European probe, Huygens, to the moon's surface.
Understanding Titan's carbon-chemistry cookbook may unlock knowledge as to how Earth's carbon-based life began, the researchers hope.
The study appears in the latest issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters.