Huygens probe lands on Saturn's moon Titan, returns pictures

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Friday, January 14, 2005

Huygens, the European built Titan exploration probe, ended its seven-year voyage today when it landed on the surface of the second largest moon in the solar system at 11:38 a.m. UTC. The probe, which the European Space Agency (ESA) began developing 17 years ago, has worked well with only minor system failures.

"This is a great achievement for Europe and its US partners in this ambitious international endeavor to explore the Saturnian system", said Jean-Jacques Dordain, the Director General of the ESA [1]

The first confirmation that Huygens had successfully entered Titan's thick atmosphere was at 10:25 a.m. UTC when the Green Bank radio telescope in the United States directly received the faint carrier signal of its beacon. Due to the immense distance, the radio transmission took 67 minutes to arrive.

Huygens broadcast data to its Cassini mothership (the US probe which carried Huygens to Titan) throughout its descent and then from the surface. After Cassini dropped below the horizon of Titan (cutting the radio link), Cassini turned towards Earth to begin transmitting its recording of the Huygens data to the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

So far, ESA has released least three pictures—two from the probe's descent through the atmosphere under parachutes and then a picture near the surface. The Huygens probe took a total of over 300 black and white photographs during its brief mission.

"The Huygens scientists are all delighted. This was worth the long wait," says Dr Jean-Pierre Lebreton, ESA Huygens Mission Manager. [2]

The Cassini-Huygens mission is conducted by an alliance between NASA, the ESA, and ASI, the Italian space agency. The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter.