January 15, 2005

On a Moon Far Far Away 

On 14 Jan 2005 at 13:45 CET, the Huygens probe succesfully landed on Titan, the biggest of the many setallites of Saturn. And leter on, on schedule, the signal arrived confirming that Huygens was safe and sound, sending precius data back to Earth. The mission technicians hardly restrained from crying at the news.

The whole Cassini mission already produced interesting data, such as high-resolution pictures of Saturn's awesome rings system (someone called Saturn "The Lord of the Rings"), but the landing on Titan is an outstanding accomplishment- of both NASA and ESA, it would be stupid and childish to say that one was more important than the other.

The first pictures of Titan's surface show something very interesting: there are drainage channels, and lakes or seas. This means that there are liquids, flowing, that Titan is a "live" satellite.
The surface temperature is so low that water can be found only as ice, and the liquids are probably hydrocarbons, but it's already a more favorable environment than the cold, arid Martian deserts, or the scorching hot surface of Venus. From what I've heard on TV last night, pre-biotic molecules were detected in Titan's atmosphere too.

However, the mission did not go perfectly: one of Huygens' two communication channels malfunctioned, and this reduced the amount of data that were transmitted to Cassini and then to Earth. But I regard this only as a minor glitch: Cassini and Huygens travelled many million kilometers for seven years, and a lot of things may have gone wrong during all that time. But it did not happen. While in recent years other missions ended with spectacular failures: two probes crashed onto Mars, and the capsule carrying back a comet's materials did not deploy its parachute and crashed in the Nevada desert - making the whole mission almost useless.

So three cheers for Cassini and Huygens, for NASA and ESA, for all the men and women (and transgenders and transvestites, eh...) who made all this possible with their ingenuity and dedication!


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