Lunar Landing


Cassini’s Huygens probe aiming for Saturn’s moon.

I t resembles nothing so much as, well, a small flying saucer nine feet across. Yet Huygens, the probe aboard the Cassim spacecraft now orbiting Saturn, is about to make history. On Christmas Eve, 2004, the probe will begin hurtling through space on its own. ‘then on January 14th, it should touch down 800 million miles from Earth—on Titan ..

Largest of Saturn’s 33 known moons and bigger than the planet Mercury, Titan was discovered in 1655 by Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens. One thing that makes this moon particularly compelling to scientists is its atmosphere. Dense and Nitrogen rich, it may resemble Earth’s atmosphere 3.5 billion years ago. In an October flyby of Titan, Cassini detected large, puzzling patches of light and dark. Hugens’s landing may help clarify what they are. During a searing plunge through Titan’s outer atmosphere, the probe will shed most of its speed, then parachutes will float it to a landing. Cameras will record the probe’s final descent through a haze of hydrocarbons, and spectrometers and other sensors will analyze Titan’s atmosphere and surface features and send the data back to Earth. If the probe lands on a sea of liquid ethane, it could encounter looming, down motion waves.

Huygens will transmit from Titan for only a few hours, but it s going to be very romantic,” says David Southwood, the European Space Agency’s director of science programs. “Like a trip back to Earth’s formative years when our planet was only about a billion years old.”

—Bill Douthitt



January, 2005. Geographica

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