Cassini Huygens at Titans doorstep

Dec 05, 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: NASA's reliance on outsourcing launches causes a dilemma for the space agency

Related Stories

Titan's surface dissolves like sinkholes on Earth

Jun 18, 2015

Saturn's moon Titan is home to seas and lakes filled with liquid hydrocarbons, but what makes the depressions they lie in? A new study suggests that the moon's surface dissolves in a similar process that ...

What is lunar regolith?

May 29, 2015

When you're walking around on soft ground, do you notice how your feet leave impressions? Perhaps you've tracked some of the looser earth in your yard into the house on occasion? If you were to pick up some ...

Titan's atmosphere useful in study of hazy exoplanets

Apr 23, 2015

With more than a thousand confirmed planets outside of our solar system, astronomers are attempting to identify the atmospheres of these distant bodies to determine if they could possibly host life.

Flying, rolling robot might make a great Titan explorer

Jan 07, 2013

Ever since the Huygens probe landed on Titan back in January 2005, sending us our first tantalizing and oh-so-brief glimpses of the moon's murky, pebbly surface, researchers have been dreaming up ways to explore further… ...

Recommended for you

Hubble view: Wolf-Rayet stars, intense and short-lived

19 hours ago

This NASA/European Space Agency (ESA) Hubble Space Telescope picture shows a galaxy named SBS 1415+437 (also called SDSS CGB 12067.1), located about 45 million light-years from Earth. SBS 1415+437 is a Wolf-Rayet ...

Crash test assesses plane emergency locator transmitters

20 hours ago

The Cessna 172 airplane dangled 82 feet in the air – looking almost like it was coming in for a landing, except for the cables attaching it to a huge gantry at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, ...

NASA image: Curiosity's stars and stripes

20 hours ago

This view of the American flag medallion on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity was taken by the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) during the 44th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars (Sept. 19, 2012). ...

NASA image: Stellar sparklers that last

21 hours ago

While fireworks only last a short time here on Earth, a bundle of cosmic sparklers in a nearby cluster of stars will be going off for a very long time. NGC 1333 is a star cluster populated with many young ...

User comments : 0

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.