Archives » January 14th, 2005

January 14, 2005

Huygens Has Landed

The Huygens space probe, which has been bolted to Cassini for the last seven years, hurtling through space, finally did what it was supposed to, and did it very successfully. This morning it plunged into the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan, opened its parachutes, and enjoyed a nice leisurely float down to the surface, taking pictures and measurements all the way down. It then landed and transmitted everything it had collected back to Cassini, still overhead, until its batteries went dead. Now it’s just a very expensive piece of space junk slowly becoming part of the landscape on an alien world.

But its accomplishments will live on, and those are what NASA and the ESA are going to be consumed with for a long time to come. Cassini is now sending everything it collected back to Earth, and everyone is getting their first glances at what the atmosphere and surface of Titan are really like. NASA’s own website will have all the pictures as they’re released. CNN has the full report.

It sounds like the Huygens mission was not only a complete success, it actually performed better than it was supposed to. The batteries were built to last only during the half-hour descent and then a few more minutes on the surface. They had exactly one try to get everything right, and the smallest mistake could have botched everything. But it performed perfectly, and instead of minutes, Huygens lived on for nearly two hours on the surface. It kept transmitting until Cassini disappeared over the horizon, and possibly even longer. What it transmitted will be known over the next few hours and days, as everything is slowly sent back and analyzed.

This landing caps off a really excellent year for NASA, one they needed after a couple of very public failures. Thirteen months ago it seemed like space travel was jinxed, with the Columbia accident as well as the growing number of failed Mars missions. But then in January the Spirit and Opportunity missions to Mars turned out to be overwhelming successes, Cassini’s entry into the Saturn system in July went off exactly as planned and started sending back invaluable data from orbit, and now the Huygens mission goes off without a hitch. This string of successes can only boost NASA’s image in the public eye, and hopefully we can get some more funding funnelled their way for more missions in the future. The big mission I really want to see? A flyby of Pluto, so we can finally answer all the nagging questions about that place. Is it ice? Is it rock? Should it really be called a planet? Every second that goes by Pluto just gets further and further away, and only gets colder and more dead. If we’re going to send a spacecraft out there, sooner would be better. In fact, in a perfect world one would already be on its way. The only thing holding it back is the budgets.

So let’s get some more money for NASA, and let’s get more equipment flying around this solar system of ours. Space is a big place; if we’re going to explore it all we’ve got to get hopping!

:: Much more bloggage from Susan Kitchens, on Friday and Saturday.

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