January 17, 2005

Huygens: an emotional first encounter with Titan

Friday evening, in Paris, a crowd of more than 2,000 filed into the auditorium at the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie to witness the arrival of the Huygens probe on Titan. Huygens had already successfully landed at its destination earlier in the day. Now, everybody was eagerly awaiting the first sights and sounds from this distant world over 1 billion km from Earth. One of the first images taken by Huygens. Titan’s surface is darker than scientists expected and is likely a mixture of water ice and hydrocarbons. Crédits : ESA/NASA/University of Arizona
17 January 2005

Live from Titan

No need for official speeches or stage management. Just a handful of scientists, ready to experience a historic moment with the audience in the auditorium. Scientists gave a live commentary as the 1st images from Titan acquired by Huygens started coming in from the mission control centre in Darmstadt, Germany.
Although pride in this remarkable achievement was undoubtedly eclipsed by the intense emotion of the moment, Europeans nevertheless could be justifiably proud at being the first to land a spacecraft on such a distant object in the Solar System.

With excitement at fever pitch, the 1st picture of this still unknown world was greeted with thunderous applause. It all happened this morning, on Titan, 1.2 billion km away…

What’s out there?

Everyone ventured a comment or hypothesis. The scientists in Paris and Darmstadt shared their first impressions: “It looks like ice. It doesn’t look like rock, anyway.” “That looks like channels that could have been formed by a river. And that could be some sort of canyon on the side there… Could we be seeing liquid, or is that completely out of the question?”

Then the reactions started coming thick and fast.
Words of wonderment, like those uttered by Daniel Gauthier, an interdisciplinary scientist studying Titan’s aeronomy and one of the first to propose a mission to Saturn’s largest moon after the Voyager flybys of the early 1980s: “It’s a bit like a dream, really! The parachutes opened on cue, and the descent went according to plan. The probe continued transmitting for at least 2 hours after landing, which was completely unexpected.”

Astrophysicist André Brahic, a member of the Cassini camera team, took a more humorous tack: “Well, there’s white and there’s black, but who knows what it is? Don’t ask me, because I just don’t know!” Unable to contain his excitement, the man who was there when it all began 20 years ago is the first to admit that this is “the night of his life”.

After the excitement, hard work ahead

Despite all the excitement, caution remains the order of the day. “These pictures are simply breathtaking, but we can’t say for now exactly what it is we’re seeing,” said Francis Rocard, CNES’s solar system exploration manager. Too early to draw conclusions, but not to express surprise at the results, which do not match our previous assumptions about Titan at all.

In all, 350 images were received and only 10 have so far been published. Although spectacular, they are only the tip of the iceberg. The 5 other instruments operating during the descent sensed the chemistry of Titan’s atmosphere, wind speed and surface composition.

The principal investigators each received the first data from their instruments that evening, and probably started poring over them well into the night. But now the initial elation has passed, it will take months and even years to analyse the results. For the Huygens mission scientists, the adventure has only just begun…

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