January 15, 2005 | David F. Coppedge

Flying Saucer Lands on Titan

The Huygens Probe successfully landed on the surface of Titan Friday morning, and appears to have remained active for an hour after impact. See the official European Space Agency site for latest scientific results.  Download this 27-page Mission Description from JPL (2.0mb) for a detailed plan of the now highly successful mission.
    At the day-after press conference, scientists provided some tantalizing samples from their data, including the sounds of the atmosphere recorded on a microphone (download the audio files from The Planetary Society).  The principal investigator for the Surface Science Package (SSP) said they got excellent data from all 9 sensors during descent and on the surface.  He won a sweepstakes for guessing the time of descent to within 7 seconds (just under 2.5 hours).  Results from the Gas Chromatograph – Mass Spectrometer (GCMS) indicate a source of methane at the surface.
    Eager for pictures, the media will continue to have to wait for the team to get some sleep after working through the night.  But what they got produced gasps and applause: the first crude mosaic seemed to show some relief with drainage channels pouring into a shoreline, and the first color image from the landing site that showed an orange landscape and orange sky (see ESA Huygens site).  The mosaic could be mistaken for an oblique aerial view of the coast of California, except that instead of a balmy beach, the scene is almost 300° below zero.
    The only glitches of the mission were a missing command to turn on the Doppler Wind Experiment (DWE), and a redundant data channel that failed, losing half the possible images.  However, the DWE data can be reconstructed entirely from combined data received by Earth-based radio telescopes (a remarkable capability comparable to watching a tennis court on the moon), and the imaging team got the planned number of shots; because of overlap, they should be able to reconstruct most of the panoramas they hoped for.  Overall, scientific results were 100% of planned objectives – and then some.  That so many parts of this complex assemblage of hardware and software actually worked as hoped in an alien environment humans have never before visited is truly remarkable.  This was a mission for the history books.
    The “treasure trove” of scientific data returned from Huygens could well occupy scientists for many years.  Despite lack of sleep over the last day and a half, each principal investigator seemed bristling with excitement.  Some almost choked up as they described the results they got.  Patience will be required for us onlookers as the experts mine the data.  After years of speculation, a more accurate understanding of the atmosphere and surface of this bizarre world should emerge.
Update 01/17/2005: More science findings should be announced on Friday, Jan. 21, one week after the landing.  All 369 raw images were posted by ESA yesterday.  Over a third were taken after landing, and 20% were too blurry to be useful.  A good 40% or so show the landscape as the probe descended about 5 meters per second.  ESA also posted the sounds of Titan, including a microphone recording of winds, and a series of radar echoes that rise in frequency and tempo as the probe reached the ground with a thud.  The surface texture “resembles wet sand or clay with a thin solid crust, and its composition as mainly a mix of dirty water ice and hydrocarbon ice, resulting in a darker soil than expected.”

Speaking of predictions, here’s a chance to compare expectations of liberal evolutionists and conservative creationists.  If Titan is old, it should have a layer of hydrocarbon snow half a mile thick (see 04/25/2003 and 10/16/2003 entries).  If young, it should have less than an inch.  Let’s see whose prediction matches the findings.  Let’s also see if the old-agers can account for the replenishment of methane, which should have eroded away long ago if Titan had an atmosphere 4.5 billion years ago.
    You read that prediction here before the descent began.  Well, where are the deposits?  So far, it is unclear they even exist.  The probe landed with a thud on a surface comparable to wet sand or clay.  Is this the top of half a mile of hydrocarbon snow?  Or is it an icy bedrock somewhat softened by a thin veneer of surface hydrocarbon slush?  Too soon to tell, but keep an eye on that subject.  Remarkably absent was any mention of craters.  The few images released to date show not a single clear impact crater.  Either the surface of this frigid moon has been active for 4.5 billion years, or it is not that old.  Stay tuned.
    At the night-before celebration in Pasadena, Planetary Society president Wes Huntress reminded the audience that every time we have visited a new world, our prior speculations were proved wrong.  This was true at Venus, where scientists envisioned swamps and life, and Mars, where 1960-era astronomers still believed they saw vegetation.  Much of the speculation about Titan (even the day of landing, on The Science Channel special) revolved around the chance for finding life – or at least “prebiotic chemistry similar to that which existed on the Earth at the time life evolved.”  We expect the chemical evolutionists will be sorely disappointed.  For now, though, it’s time to enjoy the salt air of discovery, like sailors leaning over the bow of Columbus’ ship, eyes straining wide open to see the new world, after first hearing, “Land ho!”

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Categories: Solar System

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