General
01 Jun 2007

Huygens – The space odyssey continues

Prof Zarnecki with Huygens model and Titan image

Prof Zarnecki with Huygens model and Titan image

Two and a half years after the historic landing of ESA’s Huygens probe on Titan, a new set of results on Saturn’s largest moon is ready.

Titan, as seen through the eyes of the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe, still holds exciting surprises, scientists said today a special edition of Planetary and Space Science magazine and at a press conference in Athens.

Professor John Zarnecki of The Open University led the Surface Science Package (SSP) on Huygens “Huygens has provided us with a rich seam of data to mine – and we shall be digging through it for some time to come. The Surface Science Package returned immediate information about Titan about the landing Huygens made but it is also a part of the longer term picture, piecing together the whole environment on Titan.”

By driving their computer models of Titan to match the data returned from the probe, planetary scientists can now visualise Titan as a working world. “Even though we have only four hours of data, it is so rich that after two years of work we have yet to retrieve all the information it contains,” says François Raulin, Huygens Interdisciplinary Scientist, at the Laboratoire de Physique et Chimie de l'Environnement, Paris.

The new details add greatly to the picture of Saturn’s largest moon. “Titan is a world very similar to the Earth in many respects,” says Jean-Pierre Lebreton, ESA Huygens Project Scientist.

Huygens found that the atmosphere was hazier than expected because of the presence of dust particles – called ‘aerosols’. Now, scientists are learning how to interpret their analysis of these aerosols, thanks to a special chamber that simulates Titan’s atmosphere.

When the probe dropped below 40 kilometres in altitude, the haze cleared and the cameras were able to take their first distinct images of the surface. They revealed an extraordinary landscape showing strong evidence that a liquid, possibly methane, has flowed on the surface, causing erosion. Now, images from Cassini are being coupled with the ‘ground truth’ from Huygens to investigate how conditions on Titan carved out this landscape.

As the probe descended, Titan’s winds carried it over the surface. A new model of the atmosphere, based on the winds, reveals that Titan’s atmosphere is a giant conveyor belt, circulating its gas from the south pole to the north pole and back again.

Also, the tentative detection of an extremely low frequency (ELF) radio wave has planetary scientists equally excited. If they confirm that it is a natural phenomenon, it will give them a way to probe into the moon’s subsurface, perhaps revealing an underground ocean.

Editor’s note:
On 14 January 2005, after a seven-year voyage on board the NASA/ESA/ASI Cassini spacecraft, ESA’s Huygens probe spent 2 hours and 28 minutes descending by parachute to land on Titan. It then sent transmissions from the surface for another seventy minutes before Cassini moved out of range.

UK participation in the Cassini-Huygens mission was funded by the Science and technology Facilities Council.


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