Cassini Huygens at Titans doorstep

December 5, 2004

The NASA/ESA/ASI Cassini Huygens mission to Saturn, which has already delivered stunning images and data of the ringed planet following insertion into the Saturnian system on 1st July this year, is poised to enter a crucial stage in its voyage of scientific discovery. In the early hours of Christmas morning [25th December], the Huygens probe will separate from the orbiter - its' home for the last seven years - to parachute down through the nitrogen-rich atmosphere of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, where it will come to rest, though the exact nature of its final resting place remains a mystery. Scientists speculate that Huygens may find lakes or even oceans of a mixture of liquid ethane, methane and nitrogen.

Prof. John Zarnecki of the Open University, principal scientist for the Science Surface Package, the first instruments to make contact with Titan's terra firma is open minded. "It's a distinct possibility that I could be the very first scientist to carry out oceanography on an outer planet of the solar system. But equally the probe could land with a thud on hard ground or squelch into a morass of extraterrestrial slime - no one knows for sure. In any event, the instruments onboard have been designed to handle a range of possibilities. Let's just say that, after a seven year voyage and twenty years of planning, design and build, I will be extremely pleased to land, whatever the surface."

Following separation from the mothership, Huygens will coast unguided and unpowered for 20 days towards Titan, where it will arrive on the 14th January [2005] to begin its entry and descent to the moon's surface. Travelling at Mach 2 [1522 mph], the probe will enter Titan's atmosphere at an altitude of 1270km [789 miles] and decelerate to an impact speed of 5 meters per second - the equivalent to jumping from a chair onto the ground.

Commenting on the mission Professor Ian Halliday, Chief Executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council [PPARC] that funds UK involvement in the joint NASA/ESA/ASI project said, "Superlatives can come easy when talking about space missions but this particular voyage of scientific discovery is truly awesome. Huygens will be the furthest man-made object to land on a remote celestial body and, whilst the science returns from Titan are eagerly awaited, we shouldn't forget that the European Huygens probe is totally controlled by UK developed systems and hardware. At a distance of almost 1.3 billion km [789 million miles] that's quite a feat."

Professor Halliday added, "Titan is a mysterious place and raises many scientific questions. Its thick atmosphere is mostly nitrogen, but there are also methane and many other organic compounds. Some of them would be signs of life if they were on our planet. Organic compounds form when sunlight destroys methane. If sunlight is continuously destroying methane on Titan, how is methane getting into the atmosphere?"

Source: PPARC

Explore further: Deserts and dunes—Earth as an analogue for Titan

Related Stories

Deserts and dunes—Earth as an analogue for Titan

November 6, 2015

By comparing radar images of areas on Titan to those of Earth's deserts, scientists have identified two distinct types of sand dune on Saturn's largest moon – and discovered eroded structures that indicate that Titan's ...

Saturn's moon Titan

October 5, 2015

In ancient Greek lore, the Titans were giant deities of incredible strength who ruled during the legendary Golden Age and gave birth to the Olympian gods we all know and love. Saturn's largest moon, known as Titan, is therefore ...

The moons of Saturn

September 14, 2015

Saturn is well known for being a gas giant, and for its impressive ring system. But would it surprise you to know that this planet also has the second-most moons in the Solar System, second only to Jupiter? Yes, Saturn has ...

Saturn's icy moon Enceladus

October 20, 2015

n the ongoing drive to unlock the secrets of Saturn and its system of moons, some truly fascinating and awe-inspiring things have been discovered. In addition to things like methane lakes and propane-rich atmospheres (Titan) ...

The gas (and ice) giant Neptune

September 14, 2015

Neptune is the eight planet from our Sun, one of the four gas giants, and one of the four outer planets in our Solar System. Since the "demotion" of Pluto by the IAU to the status of a dwarf planet – and/or Plutoid and ...

Life on Titan: stand well back and hold your nose!

April 14, 2010

( -- Research by astrobiologist William Bains suggests that if life has evolved on the frozen surface of Saturn's moon, Titan, it would be strange, smelly and explosive compared to life on Earth. Dr Bains will ...

Recommended for you

Amazon deforestation leaps 16 percent in 2015

November 28, 2015

Illegal logging and clearing of Brazil's Amazon rainforest increased 16 percent in the last year, the government said, in a setback to the aim of stopping destruction of the world's greatest forest by 2030.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.