January 15, 2005

Titan Landing : three floppy disks from outer space

Huygens space craft sends first images from Saturn’s moon - sceptics had predicted the landing of the $250 million space probe Huygens would not produce enough visual data to fill a single floppy disk (1.2 megabytes), but already with the first transmission as the craft parachuted down through the thick haze enveloping the Titan moon, over 300 images (which would fill more than 3 floppies) have been received. And they are amazing, according to The European Space Agency, who are responsible for this momentous space triumph.

Titan moon surface with channels and dark lake of liquid

Photo taken by Huygen spacecraft of Titan’s surface, showing possible drainage channels and a dark lake of liquid

With an atmosphere dominated by nitrogen, methane and other organic/carbon-based molecules, the surface of Titan is thought to be similar to the way it was on Planet Earth 4.6 billion years ago.

If there is any form of life in the solar system other than our own, then Titan is the hot (albeit extremely cold, -180C) favourite to harbour it.

“All the ingredients for life are there, except one: oxygen”

said David Southwood of the European Space Agency. The Hugyens landing is by far the most distant ever achieved by man: the Cassini spacecraft which carried the Hugyens probe to Saturn made the 2 billion mile journey in 7 years, after 13 years of prior preparation. The significant European involvement in this spectacular project goes some way to mitigating the embarrassments of the snafued Beagle landing on Mars last year - any dramatic images of giant waves and the like may obliterate the memory of this sad episode completely.

At the speed of light, signals from the mother space craft Cassini took 67 minutes to be beamed back to Earth.

The first images hint that waves - probably of enormous height - are visible on the surface of Titan.

“And did one see, perhaps, some waves? Our dreams have been fulfilled. There is activity, there is processing going on, on the surface.”

Wow. Check out the BBC reports plus the Guardian’s to get the full flavour of all this sudden explosion of success.

Saturn's moon Titan

Photo of Saturn’s moon Titan, from Cassini space craft

Posted by Iain Stewart at 4:43 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack
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