Titan: Piercing the Fog

Surface image from Titan shows ice blocks strewn around. Click image for larger view.
Image Credit: ESA

This banner composite was produced from images returned yesterday, January 14, 2005, by the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe during its successful descent to land on Titan. It shows a full 360-degree view around Huygens. The left-hand side, behind Huygens, shows a boundary between light and dark areas. The white streaks seen near this boundary could be ground ‘fog,’ as they were not immediately visible from higher altitudes.

As the probe descended, it drifted over a plateau (center of image) and was heading towards its landing site in a dark area (right). From the drift of the probe, the wind speed has been estimated at around 6-7 kilometers (about 4 miles) per hour.

These images were taken from an altitude of about 8 kilometers ( about 5 miles) with a resolution of about 20 meters (about 65 feet) per pixel. The images were taken by the Descent Imager/Spectral Radiometer, one of two NASA instruments on the probe.

This surface image (right) was returned yesterday, January 14, 2005, after Huygens survived the dangerous descent to Titan. This is the colored view, following processing to add reflection spectra data, and gives a better indication of the actual color of the surface.

Huygens descends with Saturn in background. [Banner image is false color view of the Titan panorama.]
Image Credit: ESA

Initially thought to be rocks or ice blocks, they are more pebble-sized. The two rock-like objects just below the middle of the image are about 15 centimeters (about 6 inches) (left) and 4 centimeters (about 1.5 inches) (center) across respectively, at a distance of about 85 centimeters (about 33 inches) from Huygens.

The surface is darker than originally expected, consisting of a mixture of water and hydrocarbon ice. There is also evidence of erosion at the base of these objects, indicating possible fluvial activity. The image was taken with the Descent Imager/Spectral Radiometer, one of two NASA instruments on the probe.

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe today offered congratulations to the European Space Agency (ESA) on the successful touchdown of its Huygens probe on Saturn’s moon Titan.

"The descent through Titan’s atmosphere and down to its surface appeared to be perfect," Administrator O’Keefe said. "We congratulate ESA for their spectacular success. We’re very proud of the Cassini-Huygens teams that helped to make this both an engineering and scientific victory, and we appreciate the dedication and support from our international partners."

The probe entered Titan’s upper atmosphere at about 5:15 a.m. EST Jan. 14. During its two and one-half hour descent to the surface of the moon, it sampled the chemical composition of the atmosphere. The probe continued transmitting data for more than 90 minutes after reaching the surface.

The data was sent to NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, and was recorded and relayed through NASA’s Deep Space Network to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and to ESA’s Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany. The European Space Agency facility is the operations center for the Huygens probe mission. Data was received over one of two channels designed to be mostly redundant.

Surface image from Titan shows rocky blocks strewn around. Click image for larger view. Image Credit: ESA

JPL Director Dr. Charles Elachi said, "We congratulate our colleagues at ESA on the splendid performance of the Huygens probe and look forward to the science results of this effort. This has been a great example of international collaboration to explore our solar system."

Listen to sounds from the microphone onboard the Huygens during its descent (wav file format, approx. 600 kB each):

Cassini-Huygens is a joint mission of NASA, ESA and the Italian Space Agency. ESA’s Huygens probe was carried to Saturn’s orbit aboard Cassini, and sent on its way to Titan on Dec. 24, 2004. Cassini continues to orbit Saturn on a four-year prime mission to study the planet, its rings, moons and magnetosphere.

"Our ESA colleagues have every reason to be very proud of the excellent manner in which the Huygens probe performed," said Robert T. Mitchell, Cassini program manager at JPL. "We are also proud of our support for this endeavor," he said.

Related Web Pages

Rendezvous with Titan
Huygens, Phone Home
Saturn– JPL Cassini Main Page

Lord of the Rings
Space Science Institute, Imaging Team Boulder, Colorado
Saturn: The Closest Pass
Prebiotic Laboratory
Planet Wannabe
Where is Cassini Now?