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: SDO captures images of two mid-level flares

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Cassini sees sunny seas on Titan

Oct 30, 2014

(Phys.org) —As it soared past Saturn's large moon Titan recently, NASA's Cassini spacecraft caught a glimpse of bright sunlight reflecting off hydrocarbon seas.

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… ...

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

Apr 14, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- 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. ...

Studying Titan's Lakes on Earth

Jan 28, 2010

A new project aims to replicate the surface on the moon Titan in order to learn more about its hydrocarbon lakes. This study could also tell us about the chemistry that led to the origin of life on early Earth.

Cassini Returns to Southern Hemisphere of Titan

Jan 12, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- NASA'S Cassini spacecraft will return to Titan's southern hemisphere on a flyby tomorrow, Jan. 12, plunging to within about 1,050 kilometers (about 670 miles) of the hazy moon's surface.

Recommended for you

SDO captures images of two mid-level flares

Dec 19, 2014

The sun emitted a mid-level flare on Dec. 18, 2014, at 4:58 p.m. EST. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, which watches the sun constantly, captured an image of the event. Solar flares are powerful bursts ...

Why is Venus so horrible?

Dec 19, 2014

Venus sucks. Seriously, it's the worst. The global temperature is as hot as an oven, the atmospheric pressure is 90 times Earth, and it rains sulfuric acid. Every part of the surface of Venus would kill you ...

Image: Christmas wrapping the Sentinel-3A antenna

Dec 19, 2014

The moment a team of technicians, gowned like hospital surgeons, wraps the Sentinel-3A radar altimeter in multilayer insulation to protect it from the temperature extremes found in Earth orbit.

Video: Flying over Becquerel

Dec 19, 2014

This latest release from the camera on ESA's Mars Express is a simulated flight over the Becquerel crater, showing large-scale deposits of sedimentary material.

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.