Cassini Week: Huygens Probe 

When Cassini launched in 1997, it carried with it a special payload: a probe named Huygens that would penetrate the permanent haze of Saturn’s largest moon Titan, and reveal to us the shrouded world below.

Huygens descent module and shield

Huygens descent module and shield – Credit: ESA

And what a world Titan is!

It’s larger than Mercury, approaching the diameter of Mars (Titan: 5,150 km / Mars: 6,780 km). It has an atmosphere with superrotating winds, composed of 95 nitrogen and 5% methane. And it has an abundance of massive liquid methane lakes and rivers, as well as water ice and rocks of all sizes. A truly dynamic place that can only be referred to as a world.

And we owe most of what we know about Titan thanks to Huygens and Cassini.

Four images obtained at different altitudes during Titan's descent

Four images obtained at different altitudes during Titan’s descent – Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

The probe was named after the man who discovered Titan in 1655, the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens.

Christiaan Huygens

Christiaan Huygens

After a seven year journey, Cassini entered Saturn’s orbit on July 1, 2004. On Christmas Day of that year (Spacecraft Event Time), the shelled Huygens probe separated from Cassini and began its three-week coast to Titan’s surface. Finally, on January 14, 2005, Huygens fell through Titan’s atmosphere, slowed by parachutes, for 2 hours and 27 minutes, before landing on the surface. On the way down, its suite of instruments and cameras captured priceless data about the mysterious world on which it would spend the rest of its life.

First color photo from Titan's surface

First color photo from Titan’s surface – Credit: NASA/JPL/ESA/University of Arizona

Huygens sent data back from the surface of Titan for 72 minutes, before Cassini–our relay station to the probe–dipped below the moon’s horizon. The amount of data collected and transmitted during that short time, however, was phenomenal. In addition to the breathtaking photos, Huygens provided us with unprecedented data about the alien moon, data that is still being analyzed for new discoveries to this day.

Stay tuned for more, as we continue our week of commemorating the Cassini mission on the eve of the spacecraft’s Grand Finale.

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