Huygens lands on Titan

Himalayan News Service

New York:

After a seven-year, four-million-kilometre journey, the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe is now sitting on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. The probe landed on Titan’s surface January 14, 350 years after it was discovered. The probe has begun sending data, including first pictures and audio, which sounds like some celestial heartbeat.

“Huygens is mankind’s first successful attempt to land a probe on another world in the outer solar system,”said Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s director general. “This is a great achievement for Europe and its US partners in this ambitious international endeavour to explore Saturn system.” ESA said one of the main reasons for sending Huygens to Titan is its nitrogen atmosphere, rich in methane, and its surface, which may contain many chemicals of the kind that existed on the young Earth. Though Titan is classified as a moon, it is larger than the planets Mercury and Pluto. It has a planet-like atmosphere that is denser than those of Mercury, Earth, Mars and Pluto.

The probe was released from its mothership Cassini Dec 25. It was in Titan’s outer surface for 20 days. “The probe started its descent through Titan’s hazy cloud layers from an altitude of about 1,270 km at 11:13 Central European Time. During the following three minutes Huygens had to decelerate from 18,000 to 1,400 km per hour,” ESA said.

“Titan was always the target in the Saturn system where the need for ‘ground truth’ from a probe was critical. It is a fascinating world and we are now eagerly awaiting the scientific results,” said David Southwood, director of ESA’s scientific programme. The Cassini-Huygens mission is the result of cooperation between ESA, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Agenzia Spaziale Italiana, the Italian space agency.

New, refined pictures from Saturn’s moon Titan released Saturday show a pale orange surface covered by a thin haze of methane and what appears to be a methane sea complete with islands and a mist-shrouded coastline. pace officials worked through the night to sharpen the new photos taken by the space probe Huygens, which snapped the images Friday as it plunged through Titan’s atmosphere before landing by parachute on the surface. Officials played back sound gathered from Huygens’ microphone at the surface — a whooshing noise they did not identify. But the centre of attention was the pictures. One shot taken from an altitude of 10 miles showed dark lines that suggested stream beds carved by liquid flowing into a dark area suspected to be a sea of liquid methane — with light areas in the dark that could be islands. “It is almost impossible to resist speculating that the flat dark material is some kind of drainage channel, that we are seeing some kind of a shoreline,” said scientist Marty Tomasko from the University of Arizona, head of the camera team. “We still don’t know if it has liquid in it.” Titan’s notorious haze — which has kept astronomers from getting a better picture through telescopes — is obvious in the two refined images shown Saturday. An image taken on the surface shows chunks of what scientists say looks like water ice scattered over an orange surface overcast by methane haze. On Friday, the chunks were described as boulder-sized, but overnight examination showed they are much smaller and simply look big because they are close to Huygens’ camera. Deep shadows and depressions around the chunks suggest they could have been surrounded by liquid at one time, scientists said. Titan is the only moon in the solar system known to have a significant atmosphere. Rich in nitrogen and containing about 6 per cent methane, its atmosphere is believed to be 1 1/2-times thicker than Earth’s.