Sunday, January 16, 2005


A photo of the surface of Saturn's moon Titan

That, there, is a composite panoramic view of the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan, taken during the recent descent of the Huygens probe. The Cassini spacecraft, which dropped the Huygens probe, is on a four–year–long mission to orbit Saturn, has already been able to send spectacular images of the rings back to us here on Earth, roughly 9 a.u. (or 1,350 million kilometres) away. In addition to the image above, there are other really amazing photos — take a look.

From what the scientists can glean from the data they’ve collected so far, it seems that the surface is an orangey colour, and is the consistency of wet sand or firm mushy ice. The dark areas seen above could be seas, or could be areas where seas or bodies of water have mostly dried out. The lighter lines near the top of the panorama are either present or former coastlines, with land above. There seems to be a peninsula of some kind just right of centre. The temperature is a couple of hundred degrees below freezing, and the atmosphere is mostly methane. The clouds are methane. The seas, if there are seas, will be liquid methane — in other words, very cold lighter fuel!

Of course I know that humans haven’t made it to Titan, but I’m still quite excited by all this — I mean, think about it! We can blast a very light, very hi–tech piece of metal through our robust atmosphere, somehow point it in the right direction, and send it where we want it to go! Not just 100 miles out. Not just 1,000. Not just a million. But nearly one thousand million miles away. We can control it precisely from a distance like that! We can take photos, we can even tell what’s in the ‘air’ around it! Is that not — truly and literally — marvellous?!

Just re–reading the above, it might seem that I’m doing the all–too–usual crowing: the “how powerful we humans are” speech. I’m not. I’m marvelling at this because we are so small know so very few things, and it’s just plain miraculous, a massive stroke of luck, that we are able to do this kind of thing at all. Clearly, a lot of the scientists are still speculating excitedly:

…European colleagues spent a sleepless night analysing data transmitted from Huygens during its four–hour life on Titan.

The mission's success has raised hopes of understanding the evolution of the solar system and of life on Earth. As Al Diaz, science associate administrator of Nasa — which has collaborated on the Huygens mission — said: ‘Titan is a time machine that gives us an opportunity to look at conditions that existed on early Earth.’

There were a few glitches, however. These included the loss of half the 700 images that were to have been beamed back to Earth, a failure that occurred because one of Huygens’s data channels was not switched on automatically. The European Space Agency, which built the probe, is to carry out an investigation.

But the loss was a minor one, and European scientists yesterday hailed the mission as their greatest interplanetary success. Among the sensational information beamed back from this strange, freezing world were images of what seemed to be rocky shorelines lapped by a dark liquid sea.

Phew. Quite something, huh? :o)

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