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Titan's Smooth Surface Baffles Scientists

michael posted more than 9 years ago | from the that's-no-moon! dept.

Space 319

JazMuadDib writes "Scientists expected a few rough spots when their space drone snapped close-range images of Titan, Saturn's largest moon. Instead, the planetlike moon appears to have a bizarre, mysteriously smooth surface, and Tuesday's images have left them in a state of wonder. Read more at the Tucson Citizen." NASA's Cassini pages have a wide assortment of images and analysis. Cassini's data has already thrown scientists for loop.

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319 comments

I've just got my Karma back up to Positive... (0, Offtopic)

FosterKanig (645454) | more than 9 years ago | (#10658844)

and I've ruined with another First Post. Again.

Re:I've just got my Karma back up to Positive... (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#10658881)

2 in a row. Impressive!!!!11@!!OMGWTFBBQ

The reason it's so smooth (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#10658845)

An earlier collision with the comet Botox.

Obligatory... (5, Funny)

kgbspy (696931) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659004)

You think Titan's smooth - you should see Uranus...

*ducks*

Re:Obligatory... (5, Funny)

Impy the Impiuos Imp (442658) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659102)

One scientist first described the surface as "smooth as a young woman's ass", but had to change the description when other scientists had no referrants as to what he was talking about.

first (-1, Redundant)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#10658849)

post

gary_niger@gnaa.us (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#10658851)

gary_niger@gnaa.us

No.... (-1, Offtopic)

rainman_bc (735332) | more than 9 years ago | (#10658867)

No nerds, it's not a friggin' Dyson Sphere, and Scotty isn't there in a transporter locked in loopback.

Re:No.... (2, Funny)

jdray (645332) | more than 9 years ago | (#10658906)

Someone should check with John Varley [amazon.com] and see if he knows anything...

Re:No.... (1)

cephyn (461066) | more than 9 years ago | (#10658941)

Or perhaps Stephen Baxter [amazon.com] .

Re:No.... (1)

jdray (645332) | more than 9 years ago | (#10658996)

This is totally OT, but IMHO, Stephen Baxter should stick to short stories. He's a wizard with them. I tried reading a couple of his longer novels and just felt bogged down. And, in one, I found two of his short stories that I had previously read right in the middle.

Of course, maybe I've just chosen the wrong novels. Any suggestions for a good one, one that will keep you reading?

Re:No.... (1)

Charvak (97898) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659051)

Then may I suggest Vacuum Diagrams by Stephen Baxter. This novel is a collection of related short stories.

Re:No.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#10659164)

I actually thought that book was pretty interesting.

Of course not (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#10658909)

That's hundreds of years in the future.

that's no moon... (-1, Offtopic)

pbjones (315127) | more than 9 years ago | (#10658874)

oooops, got carried away, well it was the obvious comment...

Re:that's no moon... (5, Funny)

Tackhead (54550) | more than 9 years ago | (#10658893)

> oooops, got carried away, well it was the obvious comment...

"That's no moon..." is the comment for Mimas [nasa.gov] , not Titan :)

Re:that's no moon... (1)

jdray (645332) | more than 9 years ago | (#10658925)

I was about to deride you for not getting the reference, but checked the link. Nice.

There's nothing I like better... (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#10658883)

than after months of anticipation, hard work, and millions of dollars to get to the moment of revealation where the mysterious coverings are peeled off, and my objective is laid bare, completely smooth, and ready for exploration.

Not quite as the summary says (4, Insightful)

Dancin_Santa (265275) | more than 9 years ago | (#10658885)

The surface has no shadow detail, so it is impossible to determine whether peaks and valleys exist on the ground.

Here's the quote: Because of the global haze layer, Porco says, "we do not see shadows on the surface of Titan. And because we don't see shadow, we can't look at an image and immediately deduce what's up and what's down." There could be massive mountains and deep valleys there, or the surface could be completely flat. At this point, there's no way to tell.

Also, the interesting thing about Titan is that the cloud cover which should be methane seems to be composed of something else, altogether. Particles such as ethane and even polystyrene have been suggested as possible cloud particles. But until further investigation, it only seems to be that our initial theories of methane clouds were off the mark.

Re:Not quite as the summary says (-1, Redundant)

0racle (667029) | more than 9 years ago | (#10658922)

the interesting thing about Titan is that the cloud cover which should be methane seems to be composed of something else, altogether

the interesting thing about Titan is that the cloud cover which should be methane seems to be composed of something else

Re:Not quite as the summary says (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#10658932)

hehe... i have to return that video tomorrow.

it's an entirely different kind of flying, altogether.

Seems like radar passes coul dprovide elevation (1)

SuperKendall (25149) | more than 9 years ago | (#10658926)

I am hoping that the radar data can provide the elevation data they lack from the visual stuff.

I also thought that was a pretty big thing to get wrong in the summary!

Re:Seems like radar passes coul dprovide elevation (4, Informative)

Carnildo (712617) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659093)

I am hoping that the radar data can provide the elevation data they lack from the visual stuff.

Looking at some of the preliminary radar data (here [nasa.gov] ), there's a strip 400km long, with no more than 100 meters of height variation. That's flatter than the state of Kansas!

Re:Seems like radar passes coul dprovide elevation (4, Interesting)

back_pages (600753) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659216)

That's interesting. Do you know anything about the precision of the radar equipment? Could I look at the rather solid up-down pattern of the points on that graph and decide there are ocean swells or would that all be explained by the sensitivity of the equipment?

Of course, I don't really know what a reasonable swell size in a planet-wide (alright, moon-wide) methane ocean would be.. 100m? With the wind data they've recorded, I wouldn't be shocked.

But let me stress - I'm not even an amateur physicist or astrononmer, I'm merely fascinated by this story.

BEFORE YOU MOD (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#10658934)

Ask yourself, does paraphrasing the article deserve +5, insightful?

BEFORE YOU POST A STORY (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#10658945)

Wouldn't it be nice to have the submitted submission actually resemble the contents of the linked story?

Re:Not quite as the summary says (4, Informative)

mbrod (19122) | more than 9 years ago | (#10658982)

In the science briefing today a number of the scientists commented on how with the radar data there are no peaks of valleys over 50 meters. The visual is hard to tell the height but with the radar they know.

Re:Not quite as the summary says (4, Interesting)

bani (467531) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659099)

Sounds like the surface may be semisolid then, perhaps slushy.

radar data link (1, Redundant)

bani (467531) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659179)

...is here:

http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/cgi-bin/gs2.cgi?path= .. /multimedia/images/titan/images/PIA06989.jpg&type= image

clickable link to radar data... (4, Informative)

bani (467531) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659187)

right here [nasa.gov]

fascinating stuff. shows titan flat as a pancake for 100's of kilometers.

Re:Not quite as the summary says (1)

hikerhat (678157) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659019)

Huh. According to the one link I followed:

"There are no obvious geologic features like impact craters or tectonic features," Brown said. "The surface is ... giving even the best geologists a real run for their money."

According to radar reports, there are no hills or valleys more than 50 meters high or deep.

I think they should have a scientist death match or something to decide.

Re:Not quite as the summary says (-1, Offtopic)

That's Unpossible! (722232) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659050)

the cloud cover which should be methane seems to be composed of something else, altogether.

"THE CLOUD COVER WHICH SHOULD BE METHANE SEEMS TO BE COMPOSED OF SOMETHING ELSE!"

You put a comma in the wrong place, and this is Slashdot, land of the grammar Nazis.

Re:Not quite as the summary says (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#10659063)

You put a comma in the wrong place

Did he? [slashdot.org] ;-)

Re:Not quite as the summary says (1)

kgbspy (696931) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659237)

"the cloud cover, which should be methane, seems to be composed of something else altogether"

or,

"the cloud cover that should be methane seems to be composed of something else altogether"

It's all far, far too much methane for this time of the morning, at any rate. I'm no expert myself, however more people should read this [amazon.com] .

Chemistry of Titan's atmosphere (4, Informative)

Anders Andersson (863) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659209)

Also, the interesting thing about Titan is that the cloud cover which should be methane seems to be composed of something else, altogether. Particles such as ethane and even polystyrene have been suggested as possible cloud particles.

Among the recent images provided by NASA is a graph showing data from the ion and neutral mass spectrometer [nasa.gov] as Cassini sniffed Titan's upper atmosphere (far away from the cloud at the southern pole, if I understand it correctly). Some compounds have been identified by mass and labelled, such as hydrogen (2 Da), methane (16 Da) and nitrogen (28 Da).

However, I wonder what that unlabelled band at 7 Da (between hydrogen and methane) represents. What molecule could possibly have a mass of 7? I haven't taken a chemistry class since 1980, so please help me decode this. Are we seeing lithium ions or something?

As for the speculation that the clouds contain some "organic goo", didn't someone long ago suggest that the moon was made of cheese..?

Logic Dictates... (2, Funny)

nuclear305 (674185) | more than 9 years ago | (#10658897)

"Instead, the planetlike moon appears to have a bizarre, mysteriously smooth surface"

That's no moon, it's a space station!

Re:Logic Dictates... (2, Funny)

ocelotbob (173602) | more than 9 years ago | (#10658951)

The images I've seen seem to suggest a whitish planet, perfectly round and smooth. It's obvious. The planet is really an intergalactic billiard ball.

Re:Logic Dictates... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#10658973)

Maybe you're thinking of Mimas [planetary.org] .

Re:Logic Dictates... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#10659238)

But this time Alderaan shoots first!

Excellent news!! (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#10658910)

"WTF??" is where great science starts.

Re:Excellent news!! (3, Insightful)

not-my-real-name (193518) | more than 9 years ago | (#10658966)

More great dicoveries start with someone saying "hmmm, that's odd." than with someone shouting "Eureka!!!".

Re:Excellent news!! (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#10659043)

"OMFG!" as a close second, and "Hey, what's growing on my sandwich?" a distinct third.

Re:Excellent news!! (2, Funny)

glitch! (57276) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659182)

I thought it was, "Hey, this is lemonade! What happened to my amoebic dysentery culture?!"

The Great Link! (0, Redundant)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#10658912)

Another possibility, he says, is that "it's some sort of organic goo. It could be some sort of organic polymer, essentially plastic particles. Maybe little polystyrene foam balls. Who knows?" But, as with ethane, these would form from above. There's no known reason why a massive cloud of them should form at Titan's south pole.
Ahh they found the Great Link!! I for one welcome our new Changeling overlords!

I must be missing something.... (5, Informative)

Konowl (223655) | more than 9 years ago | (#10658913)

There could be massive mountains and deep valleys there, or the surface could be completely flat. At this point, there's no way to tell.

Am I missing something? The title of the slashdot entry discusses the smooth surface, but I RTFA, and scientists don't KNOW... period?

Re:I must be missing something.... (1)

BlacKat (114545) | more than 9 years ago | (#10658948)

Since when does the Slashdot title, or even the summary, always match the articles in question? ;)

Or, are you new around here? :}

Re:I must be missing something.... (4, Informative)

deglr6328 (150198) | more than 9 years ago | (#10658987)

They do know something, but not much. Take a look a the first synthetic aperture [nasa.gov] radar image and first altimetry [nasa.gov] scan of Titan's surface (there's only a variation of like 50 meters!) and compare this to the synthetic aperture radar from Magellan at Venus [nasa.gov] . For one thing there are practically no craters on the Titan radar image!!! Its a "new" surface!

Re:I must be missing something.... (1)

ryanmfw (774163) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659225)

Talk about dignified, they're calling the smooth areas, "Si-Si the Cat."

Sensationalism (4, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#10658921)

RTFA! The article doesnt say the surface is smooth .. they say they cant make out the surface's topography because the thick haze diffuses the light and prevents shadows from being formed preventing the discernment of topography .. There are as yet no conclusions about how rough or smooth the surface is. Please don't overhype this stuff.

If the Huygens mission is successful we'll know more .. hopefully.

Re:Sensationalism (1)

pclminion (145572) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659012)

What hype? The article summary was wrong, that's all. I assure you, I am not jumping up and down because of the existence of a perfectly smooth ball in orbit of Saturn...

No information about X doesn't mean X is false (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#10659032)

Read this [nasa.gov]

Extract:
The data show a variation in height of only about 150 meters (490 feet) over the 400-kilometer-long (250-mile-long) track, indicating that in this region Titan is remarkably flat.

Re:Sensationalism (4, Funny)

Billy the Mountain (225541) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659053)

You know, I kept telling them that they would later regret having made that translucent plastic lens cap. But did they listen to me? Noooo! "You're just a programmer", they said. "Shut up and write code", they said.

BTM

Just a thought (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#10658923)

Has anyone ever thought it could be a planet that was caught in the orbit of Jupiter?

mod Up (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#10658942)

gone Romeo and Collect any spilled Parties). At THE baalots. You could

They didn't quite say it was smooth... (2, Insightful)

RealAlaskan (576404) | more than 9 years ago | (#10658947)

They didn't quite say it was smooth: they said that they can't see the topography.
Because of the global haze layer, Porco says, "we do not see shadows on the surface of Titan. And because we don't see shadow, we can't look at an image and immediately deduce what's up and what's down." There could be massive mountains and deep valleys there, or the surface could be completely flat. At this point, there's no way to tell.
The article also says that future flybys will give them radar and other data which will let them piece together the topography.

Another nifty bit was that the methane clouds don't seem to be methane.

Another possibility, he says, is that "it's [the clouds] some sort of organic goo. It could be some sort of organic polymer, essentially plastic particles. Maybe little polystyrene foam balls. Who knows?"
Obviously, Titan picnicers have been shredding their plastic foam coffee cups, and the winds have whipped them aloft....

At last (5, Interesting)

The Bungi (221687) | more than 9 years ago | (#10658953)

I remember reading Carl Sagan's Cosmos and thinking (as he did) that Titan was the most interesting body in the Solar System outside of the Earth (sorry, I'm a terran chauvinist).

It's amazing that we've had to wait more than 20 years since he wrote that to get 700 miles from Titan, and it's mind-boggling that we're actually going to drop a probe in there.

It's just a shame that he's not around to see it.

A Little Perspective (5, Insightful)

oni (41625) | more than 9 years ago | (#10658955)

Just to put the Cassini mission into perspective, no human being in the history of our species has ever seen the surface of Titan. No one, in the hundreds of thousands of years that we've been around, has been able to know what we are about to know.

Sure, this sort of thing has happened before - there was the first (and last) picture from the surface Venus, the first image of the far side of the moon, etc. I hope we haven't gotten too accustomed to it, at least not yet. I think we are amazingly fortunate to be able to see and know things that no one before could possibly have known. There is something there. Some people will think it's boring. "It's just rocks and mush," they'll say. But I think it's special. It's a place. It's an actual, real, physical place that is up there, just out of reach until now.

No amount of desire or commitment (or for that matter luck) could have revealed it to our fathers, or their fathers, or their fathers. No matter how badly they might have wanted to know it, it was hidden from them. They had to guess, or fantasize, or just live with the mystery. But we get to see it. We are the first.

And the best part about the universe is, there's always more to see just around the next corner.

Vonnegut? (1)

Ieshan (409693) | more than 9 years ago | (#10658999)

My guess is that there will be three ladies painted on the bottom of a pool.

But that's just a guess.

Re:A Little Perspective (5, Interesting)

back_pages (600753) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659056)

Man this isn't lost on me.

I'm not even an amateur astronomer but I've been GLUED to these news reports. Didn't Arthur C. Clarke land the Chinese on Titan in 2063 or 3001, only to be eat by a methane-sea monster? Of course, Imperial Earth has Titan colonized.

I've been entranced by these pictures and realizing, as have you, that this is not entirely unlike digging up a miniature monolith on the moon - we're exposing something to the collective consciousness of the only intelligence (we know of) in the universe. We've got our shovel stuck in untilled earth, about to turn over the soil for the first time in history, but there is a whole world sitting there on the blade of the shovel.

The scope of the mysteries these first data suggest only reinforces my awe. It's not like Mars - "These mysterious lines appear to be liquid erosion." It's like, "Pretty pictures, huh? The best and brightest of the world can't figure out what's in those clouds, but we detect dim rocks in distant galaxies by watching the stars wobble." Argh! I want to go to Titan!

I don't know, maybe I've finally just flipped out on something. I want to wallpaper my living room with pictures from Cassini. That's normal, right? I just gotta know what is down there. Put me on the slow spaceship to Saturn and I'll turn into the half-crazed captain who sacrifices everything and jeopardizes his whole crew to complete the mission. Hell, me and HAL would be best friends. Screw you naysayers, I MUST KNOW what's on Titan.

I'm practically counting down the days until the landing probe touches the surface.

Re:A Little Perspective (4, Informative)

benhocking (724439) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659139)

I'm not even an amateur astronomer but I've been GLUED to these news reports. Didn't Arthur C. Clarke land the Chinese on Titan in 2063 or 3001, only to be eat by a methane-sea monster? Of course, Imperial Earth has Titan colonized.

Actually it was on Europa in 2010. This premise (well, at least the premise of a liquid ocean) was backed up by the Galileo space probe when it reached Europa. Ganymede might also have a liquid ocean, but Europa still looks like the best place to look for life, IMHO. Granted, I'm not holding my breath.

Me too.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#10659166)

but only because I want to do Uma Thurman.

Re:A Little Perspective (1)

blether (817276) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659128)

No matter how badly they might have wanted to know it, it was hidden from them.

If they'd have been that bothered they would have asked the aliens who built the pyramids.

landing on titan (5, Informative)

gatrox (826121) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659157)

Cassini carries huygens, a land probe which will (hopefully) land on Titan on january 14th. There is an interesting story on ieee spectrum [ieee.org] about an engineer who prevented the mission from certain failure.

So, then ... (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#10658972)

Did the Covenant glass it?

Nice Engrish! (4, Funny)

llamaluvr (575102) | more than 9 years ago | (#10658980)

Cassini's data has already thrown scientists for loop.

Main screen turn on!

Re:Nice Engrish! (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#10659030)

Main screen turn on!

All your moons are belong to us, except Europa.
What you say?
Attempt no landing there save your time. ha ha ha

Re:Nice Engrish! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#10659066)

How are you gentlemen! All your base are belong to us!

Re:Nice Engrish! (2, Funny)

Billy the Mountain (225541) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659100)


Cassini's data has already thrown scientists for loop.

No, that's correct english, they are obviously describing some of the intricacies of their software. Specifically their Java exception handling.

BTM

They found the surface to be smooth, except... (-1, Redundant)

neuro.slug (628600) | more than 9 years ago | (#10658998)

Scientists have discovered a large circular concave indentation (also smooth) in the surface of Titan. Audio feedback reveals the sound of masked breathing and John Williams emanating from this "moon".

-- n

Just like Tivo (-1, Offtopic)

Mike Farooki (85314) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659005)

While it may be true that there's always another place right around the corner, you can suffer from too many options. I thought the same thing about TV when I first got Tivo and now I am inundated with all kinds of wonderful programming to watch. I'd just rather sit in Newark and stare at one rock all day long, if'n you don't mind.

so you got a smooth landscape... (3, Insightful)

LiquidMind (150126) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659006)

i don't think this should be such an odd find. what are the prerequisits for a planet/moon having tectonic plates? the article states that Titan has a pretty dense atmosphere, that would protect it from most objects hurdling through space.

...maybe the whole moon is covered in some sorta liquid goo that covers all the valleys and troughs (sp?)

maybe it just wants to be different.

Re:so you got a smooth landscape... (2, Insightful)

ocelotbob (173602) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659123)

The problem is that if there is no plate tectonics on a planet, then the planet will become pockmarked with craters regardless of the thickness of the atmosphere. The earth has a fairly dense atmosphere and still has some pretty significant cratering.

Re:so you got a smooth landscape... (5, Insightful)

mikael (484) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659159)

i don't think this should be such an odd find. what are the prerequisits for a planet/moon having tectonic plates?


A major collision with a large planetoid is the main requirement (imparting a huge amount of heat), and a means of keeping this energy in the core, so that at least the central part of the planet/moon remains semi-liquid. Otherwise everything would just cool down and become a solid lump.

Titan is believed to be heated by gravitation stress from Jupiter, if not from the magnetic field as well. There could also be natural fission.

It is going to be interesting to see if there is enough liquid to partially or completely cover the surface (oceans/continents, marshy areas, complete ocean with high waves/frozen poles).

Curious (2, Funny)

Trogre (513942) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659027)

It looks lovely and smooth (and orange) in Celestia [shatters.net] .

So how come NASA is surprised when Titan turns out to look similar to existing models? Do the rest of us know something that NASA doesn't?

It's funny. Laugh.

Rats. (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#10659035)

When will the empire get the message that nobody wants these deathstars around?

The surface smoothness... (5, Funny)

JavaNPerl (70318) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659040)

is easily attributed to subtle variances in the curd temperature during the cheese formation process... oops wrong moon.

Cassini planet generator ... (2, Funny)

technomanceraus (653563) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659062)

cassini's inbuilt planet picture generator isn't pixel shader 2.0 / ARB2 compliant and thus can't apply a normal map to the generated planet :)

It's a simulation (5, Funny)

Doc Ruby (173196) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659068)

We're just walk-on extras in someone else's videogame, optimized to save rendering time where there's no prizes.

DO NOT LAND!!! (3, Funny)

Wes Janson (606363) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659084)

It's made out of antimatter! Don't try landing, the results could be catastrophic!!!


For the record, I *must* be a science fiction geek, because only a true SF fan would remember that Niven story.

Re:DO NOT LAND!!! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#10659151)

neutron star was a great book man. I ain't a SF geek, am I?

Actually... (0, Redundant)

bigredgiant1 (756646) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659086)

Actually the article said nothing about the moon seeming to have a smooth surface. It said the moon could have huge mountains and valleys, or be perfectly flat. It said that at this time there was no way to tell.

ha ha (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#10659090)

That wasn't titan, that was me mooning the telescope. ha!

Death Star? (-1, Redundant)

Necroist (568925) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659098)

Could we have discovered a fully functional death star?

I for one, welcome our new Imperial overlords.

Tucson, Titan (5, Funny)

eDavidLu (825600) | more than 9 years ago | (#10659125)

Interesting that the article is in the "Local News" section of the Tucson Citizen.

I thought some of the landscapes around Tucson look extraterrestrial. Now it makes sense.

Hmmm.... I was just rubbing my hand on the globe (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#10659170)

next to my desk and realized, it's smooth too!
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