07 Apr 2011

Destination Titan tells moving story of one man’s personal space odyssey

The surface of Titan

The surface of Titan

The landing of the Huygens probe on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, in January 2005 was one small step for The Open University’s Professor John Zarnecki and a giant leap for the history of space exploration. Not only was Huygens the most distant probe to land anywhere in our solar system, but the stunning images and data sent back by the probe have helped to paint a picture of an exotic new world. With its methane seas, volcanoes and cliffs of ice, Titan bears a striking resemblance to our own early Earth.

For Professor John Zarnecki, one of Huygen’s six principal scientists, the landing on Titan was a moment he had been building towards since his inspirational boyhood encounter with the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, 50 years ago.

Destination Titan, a BBC / Open University co-production, follows Zarnecki’s journey through the twists and turns of a distinguished career in space academia, to the surface of the world over a billion miles from Earth. First at the University of Kent and latterly at The Open University, Professor Zarnecki devoted years to the Titan project without any guarantee that would have a happy outcome – a terrific and inspiring combination of hard science and calculated risk taking.

In charge of the probe’s ‘Surface Science Package’, Professor Zarnecki’s team was faced with the task of designing the first contact with the surface of Saturn’s mysterious moon. The first-ever pictures from Titan adorned the front pages of newspapers around the world, but the inside story of this extraordinary mission remains largely untold.

John Zarnecki said: “The images from the surface of Titan, and the data from our own instrument, easily made the 15 years of hard work, occasional frustration and sometimes blind panic immediately worthwhile.

“That day, back in 1988, when we first toyed with the idea of putting in a bid to build an instrument to land on Titan, it was beyond my wildest dreams that the day would come to pass when it would all come true.”

Featuring previously unseen footage and exclusive interviews with those involved, Destination Titan tells the moving story of one man’s personal space odyssey, and of the small team of scientists who made this mission happen. Drawing on unprecedented access and detailed research, the programme will tell the warts and all inside story of this major planetary mission, and discover just what it takes to be a successful space scientist. Destination Titan offers a real insight into the team-work that goes into such a complex and ambitious scientific endeavour – not just the magical, revelatory moments but the daily slog, the frustrations and the need to make-do-and-mend with available resources.

Destination Titan is broadcast on Sunday 10 April, 22.00hrs, BBC Four.


Editor’s Notes

Destination Titan is a co-production by the BBC in partnership with The Open University.

John Zarnecki, Professor of Space Science at The Open University, is available for interview.

Destination Titan is produced in partnership between the OU and the BBC and is the work to date of independent film-makers Stephen Slater and Rich Edwards, working with Chris Riley.

John Zarnecki’s work on Cassini-Huygens eventually won him the inaugural Sir Arthur Clarke Award for individual achievement.

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