January 13, 2005

Cassini and Huyjens

Ignore the stupid "suicide" headline, that's just some idiot editor trying to punch up a story that doesn't need it.

Launched in 1997, the joint NASA/ESA probes have finally arrived at Saturn after taking the roundabout route.

On a 2.1-billion-kilometer (1.3-billion-mile) trek, it looped twice around the Sun, twice around Venus, once around Earth and once round Jupiter, picking up gravity "assists" that, like a slingshot, helped it build up enough speed to reach the outer Solar System.

It's been sailing away for seven plus years, usefully whipping around all sorts of system objects, and now it's going to be right where we want it. Precision enough to take your breath away.

On Christmas day, the Huyjens probe separated from Cassini and began it's solo journey to Titan, one of the moons of Saturn. Titan is interesting because it's got an atmosphere. A thick atmosphere and real clouds.

"Titan has a very thick nitrogen atmosphere which also contains lots of methane, and where you see methane you have complex organic (carbon) chemistry," Huygens project manager Jean-Pierre Lebreton told AFP from mission control in Darmstadt, Germany.

"We suspect that Titan's atmosphere is undergoing the same type of chemical reactions that took place on Earth way before life appeared. These precursors are called prebiotic chemistry, in other words, the chemistry which took place on Earth before the emergence of life."

The Huygens probe will begin its descent into the Titan atmosphere around 9am EST tomorrow. It'll spend over four hours under parachute, transmitting pictures and all the measurements it can gather to the Cassini probe in orbit around Saturn. The scientists are hoping that the probe will continue to transmit even after landing on the surface of Titan.

Once Huyjens goes quiet sometime tomorrow afternooon, Cassini will transmit all of the collected scientific goodness back to Earth and then continue it's own mapping of the Saturn system for at least another three years.

Huygens is named after the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens, who discovered Titan in 1655. Cassini's name comes from the Italian Jean-Dominique Cassini (1625-1712), who discovered the Saturnian satellites Iapetus, Rhea, Tethys and Dione. In 1675, he discovered what is called the "Cassini Division," the gap between Saturn's rings.
Posted by Ted at January 13, 2005 04:03 PM
Category: Space Program
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