Huygens sets off with correct spin and speed

January 11, 2005
Huygens Separation

On Christmas Day 2004, the Cassini spacecraft flawlessly released ESA’s Huygens probe, passing another challenging milestone for Cassini-Huygens mission. But, with no telemetry data from Huygens, how do we know the separation went well?
At 3:00 CET on 25 December, the critical sequence loaded into the software on board Cassini was executed and, within a few seconds, Huygens was sent on its 20-day trip towards Titan. As data from Cassini confirm, the pyrotechnic devices were fired to release a set of three loaded springs, which gently pushed Huygens away from the mother spacecraft. The probe was expected to be released at a relative velocity of about 0.35 metres per second with a spin rate of about 7.5 revolutions per minute.

Telemetry data from Cassini confirming the separation were collected by NASA’s Deep Space Network stations in Madrid, Spain, and Goldstone, California, when the telemetry playback signal from Cassini eventually reached the Earth.

However, these data showed only that the Cassini systems had worked, and that the Cassini ‘attitude perturbation’ (how Cassini moved in reaction to the probe’s release) were as expected. Within hours, the preliminary analysis of this data confirmed that Huygens was on the expected trajectory and spinning within the expected range. The spin imparted to Huygens is vitally important to ensure that the probe remains in a stable attitude and on course when it enters Titan’s atmosphere. So how could we check the spin rate was correct?

When the Huygens probe was being designed more than 10 years ago, it was required that the probe had to be magnetically ‘clean’ when switched off, meaning that any residual permanent magnetic fields must not interfere with the sensitive Cassini magnetometers. Later, when the probe was built, it was found that there was still a weak magnetic field produced, but within acceptable limits for Cassini’s magnetometer sensors.

However, because magnetic fields have a ‘direction’ as well as a strength, and this weak field was slightly off-centre, it effectively gave the probe a ‘left’ and a ‘right’ side (it behaves like a small magnet with a north and south pole). With the implication being that if you can detect this magnetic field, then you can also detect how it is rotating.

Following an initial suggestion by Jean-Pierre Lebreton, the Huygens Project Scientist, scientists on the Cassini Dual Technique Magnetometer (MAG) team, from Imperial College, London, and Braunschweig, confirmed that their instrument should be able to detect this small rotating magnetic field and plans were put in place to measure this during the probe release period.

Magnetometers are direct-sensing instruments that detect and measure both the strength and direction of magnetic fields in the vicinity of the instrument. The Cassini MAG is measuring these fields while Cassini is in orbit around Saturn as well as during the close Titan encounters. But, just after separation on 25 December, the MAG scientists detected fluctuations in the magnetic field around Cassini that could only have come from Huygens rotating and moving away.

Professor Michele Dougherty, Principal Investigator for MAG, said, “What was observed by MAG just after the probe separation on 25 December 2004, were weak but clear fluctuations in both magnetic sensors which reside on the 11-metre magnetometer boom. These fluctuations were a clear indication of the Huygens probe moving away from the Cassini orbiter. This signature confirmed the spin rate of the probe at 7.5 revolutions per minute, the ideal rate which was predicted, and that Huygens is well on its way to Titan.”

Former MAG Principal Investigator David Southwood, who is now the Director of Science at ESA, said, “Detecting the spin was immensely reassuring - not only did it show Huygens was rotating correctly, but also because the spin is directly related to the departure velocity, that Huygens was headed off at the right speed. It was really great to do it with an instrument I knew so well.”

Source: ESA

Explore further: Update: Huygens Probe Set to Detach From Cassini Orbiter Tonight

Related Stories

Huygens probe ready to detach from Cassini mother craft

December 24, 2004

After a seven-year and 3.2 billion km journey from Earth to Saturn, ESA’s Huygens probe, travelling on board NASA’s Cassini mother craft and powered through an umbilical cable, is now ready to separate and continue its ...

Cassini Saturnalia

April 26, 2010

Six years ago, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft began orbiting Saturn. Scientists are celebrating the data and detailed images the mission has provided of the planet, its famous ring, and its many moons.

Land Ho! Huygens Plunged to Titan Surface 5 Years Ago

January 14, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- The Huygens probe parachuted down to the surface of Saturn's haze-shrouded moon Titan exactly five years ago on Jan. 14, 2005, providing data that scientists on NASA's Cassini mission to Saturn are still ...

Cassini spots mini Nile River on Saturn moon Titan

December 12, 2012

(Phys.org)—The international Cassini mission has spotted what appears to be a miniature extraterrestrial version of the Nile River: a river valley on Saturn's moon Titan that stretches more than 400 km from its 'headwaters' ...

Cassini celebrates 10 years exploring Saturn

June 26, 2014

It has been a decade since a robotic traveler from Earth first soared over rings of ice and fired its engine to fall forever into the embrace of Saturn. On June 30, the Cassini mission will celebrate 10 years of exploring ...

Recommended for you

Particles self-assemble into Archimedean tilings

December 8, 2016

(Phys.org)—For the first time, researchers have simulated particles that can spontaneously self-assemble into networks that form geometrical arrangements called Archimedean tilings. The key to realizing these structures ...

Protein disrupts infectious biofilms

December 8, 2016

Many infectious pathogens are difficult to treat because they develop into biofilms, layers of metabolically active but slowly growing bacteria embedded in a protective layer of slime, which are inherently more resistant ...

Electron highway inside crystal

December 8, 2016

Physicists of the University of Würzburg have made an astonishing discovery in a specific type of topological insulators. The effect is due to the structure of the materials used. The researchers have now published their ...

0 comments

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.