Archives » October 21st, 2004

October 21, 2004

Titan Calling

Four days and ten hours from now the Cassini space probe will be making its first close pass to the moon of Titan. These Titan visits are probably the most exciting part of the spacecraft’s entire visit to Saturn, and this first flyby will gather data that NASA will use to plan the Huygens mission this coming January.

Huygens is a little probe—well, at 700 pounds, not so little—that is going to detach from Cassini and parachute to the surface of Titan, taking pictures all the way. What they will find is the big question, but they’re prepared for blinding ice storms, rocky cliffs, or a splashdown in a sea of liquid nitrogen. Huygens only has two and a half hours of battery life to record everything it can and transmit back to Cassini. After that it’s just a frozen chunk of metal on an alien world.

But that’s not ‘til January. This month Cassini will just glide by the moon and take a close look, and NASA planners will try to pick a good spot for Huygens to touch down. They’ll also find the answers to a million questions, and probably get just enough data to create a million more. They should get plenty of answers, though, since after this flyby, and the Huygens mission, Cassini is scheduled to come back to Titan at least 40 more times.

Galileo exposed the secrets of Jupiter’s moons last decade (as well as raising a million new questions). Now let’s get cracking on Saturn.