Volume: 02, Issue: 22 12/29/2004 
Artist's impression of the Huygens probe entering the upper layers of Titan's atmosphere. Image courtesy ESA-D. Ducros.
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Artist's concept of the Huygens probe separating from Cassini to enter Titan's atmosphere. Image courtesy ESA-D. Ducros.
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Other Articles in This Issue:
2004: The Year in Space
Aging Universe Still Spawning Massive Galaxies
Polluted Clouds Cool Earth Less
Learn Across the Airwaves
 

Huygens Splits for Titan

The European Space Agency's (ESA) Huygens probe successfully detached from NASA's Cassini orbiter on Dec. 24, 2004. Huygens is now on a three-week controlled collision course toward Saturn’s largest and most mysterious moon, Titan.

“Today’s release is another successful milestone in the Cassini/Huygens odyssey,” said Dr. David Southwood, ESA’s Director of Science Programmes. “This was an amicable separation after seven years of living together. Our thanks to our partners at NASA for the lift. Each spacecraft will now continue on its own, but we expect they’ll keep in touch to complete this amazing mission. Now all our hopes and expectations are focused on getting the first in-situ data from a new world we’ve been dreaming of exploring for decades.”

Huygens will be the first human-made object to explore on-site the unique environment of Titan, whose chemistry is assumed to be very similar to that of early Earth before life formed. Huygens will tell us whether this assumption is correct.

The Huygens probe, built and managed by ESA, was bolted to Cassini and has been riding along during the nearly seven-year journey to Saturn largely in a "sleep" mode. The probe will remain dormant until the onboard timer wakes it up just before reaching Titan's upper atmosphere on Jan. 14, 2005. It will then begin a two-and-a-half-hour plunge through Titan's murky atmosphere, tasting its chemical makeup and composition as it descends to touch down on the moon’s surface.

The target landing spot is over the southern hemisphere, on the day side. Protected by a thermal shield, the probe will decelerate before it deploys parachutes to ensure safe landing. Huygens will then open inlet ports and deploy booms to collect scientific data. All instruments will have direct access to the atmosphere to conduct detailed measurements and produce images of its structure, dynamics, and chemistry.

These data will be transmitted directly to the Cassini orbiter, which, at the same time, will be flying over Titan. Cassini will point its antenna to Earth and relay the data through NASA's Deep Space Network to its Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., and on to the European Space Agency's Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany, which serves as the operations center for the Huygens probe mission. From this control center, ESA engineers will track the probe and scientists will stand by to process the data from the probe's six instruments.

"We wish to congratulate our European partners as their journey begins and wish them well on their descent to Titan," said Robert T. Mitchell, Cassini program manager at JPL. "We are very excited to see the probe off and to have accomplished this part of our job. Now we're ready to finish our part -- receiving and relaying the Huygens data back to Earth."

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a joint venture of NASA, ESA, and ASI. JPL is managing the mission for NASA’s Office of Space Science, Washington. JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter.

More information on the Cassini-Huygens mission is available at the following websites:
http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov
http://www.nasa.gov/cassini
http://www.esa.int

    
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