Crunch, squelch or splash? Titan still offers all possibilities for the Huygens probe landing

Press Release From: Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council
Posted: Thursday, November 4, 2004


The prospect of the Huygens probe landing on a hard, soft or liquid surface when it lands on Titan next January still remain following further analysis of data taken during the Cassini mother ship's closest encounter with Saturn's largest moon during its fly-by on 26th October.

Commenting on the latest data results and implications for the Huygens probe Mark Leese of the Open University, Programme Manager for Science Surface Package [SSP] instruments that will unravel the mysteries of Titan said: "It's interesting that all of the possible landing scenarios that we envisaged - a hard crunch onto ice, a softer squelch into solid organics or a splash-down on a liquid hydrocarbon lake - still seem to exist on Titan."

Leese added, "A first look at the measurements of Titan's atmosphere during the fly-by suggest that the "Atmosphere Model" we developed and used to design the Huygens probe is valid and all looks good for the probe release on Christmas day and descent to the surface on 14th January 2005."

Further analysis of Titan's upper atmosphere, the thermosphere, has revealed a strange brew as Dr Ingo Mueller-Wodarg of Imperial College London explained," Our instrument, the Ion Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS), made in-situ measurements of atmospheric gases in Titan's upper atmosphere and found a potent cocktail of nitrogen and methane, stirred up with signatures of hydrogen and other hydrocarbons. We are now working on a 'Weather Report' for the Huygens landing in January".

Commenting on the surface characteristics of Titan Professor John Zarnecki of the Open University, lead scientist for the Huygens SSP said: "The recent results from the fly-by have started to show us a very diverse and complicated surface. Titan is geologically active but hasn't yet given up all of its secrets. Combining the visible images with infrared and RADAR data from this and future fly-bys should help to clarify the picture - but the arrival of the Huygens probe in January will perhaps be the key to unlock these mysteries."

Professor Carl Murray, of the Imaging Science System [ISS] team from Queen Mary, University of London also commented on the surface features: "The images of the Huygens' landing site returned by the cameras show a diverse range of features. We see bright and dark areas roughly aligned in an east-west direction. These are similar to wind streaks seen on Mars and may indicate that material on Titan has been deposited by the effects of wind blowing across the landscape. All indications suggest that we are in for a real treat in January when the Huygens probe reaches Titan's surface and returns the first in situ data from this alien world."

UK scientists and technologists are amongst an international team continuing to analyse the latest data received from the NASA/ESA/ASI Cassini Huygens mission after the spacecraft made its close fly-by of Titan last week. The data has provided a wealth of information about Saturn's largest moon, which will not only assist the European Space Agency's Huygens team in advance of the probe landing on Titan in January 2005 but will also increase our understanding of the relationship between Titan and its parent planet Saturn.

Professor Michele Dougherty from Imperial College is lead scientist on the Cassini Magnetometer, which is studying the interaction between the plasma in Saturn's magnetosphere and the atmosphere and ionosphere of Titan. "We have been able to model the Magnetometer data very well from the Titan flyby. There does not seem to be an internal magnetic field at Titan from the observations we obtained during this flyby, but we will have a much better idea about this when we have a further flyby in December which is on a very similar trajectory. All we can say at this point is that if there is a magnetic field generated in the interior of Titan, then it is very small"

Dr Andrew Coates from University College London's Mullard Space Science Laboratory, a Co-Investigator on the Cassini Electron Spectrometer team, said: "We received some remarkable new information about Titan's plasma environment within the context of Saturn's fascinating magnetosphere. Unexpectedly, it looks like we can directly use features of the electron results to understand what Titan's upper atmosphere is made of, supplementing the ion measurements from companion sensors on other instruments. Our electron results contain tell-tale fingerprints of photoelectrons and Auger electrons which we will use for this. Also, the total picture shows how important electrons, raining down on Titan's upper atmosphere, are in helping the feeble sunlight drive the complex chemistry in Titan's upper atmosphere."

Nick Shave, Space Business Manager at UK IT company LogicaCMG said "The amazing imagery and radar results recently received from Cassini of Titan's surface is providing important early information and creating real excitement in the industrial community. UK industry's critical contributions to Cassini-Huygens via the LogicaCMG Huygens flight software and other systems, such as the parachutes by Martin Baker, will enable even more spectacular science that could help unlock some of the secrets of life on Earth."

UK scientists are playing significant roles in the Cassini Huygens mission with involvement in 6 of the 12 instruments onboard the Cassini orbiter and 2 of the 6 instruments on the Huygens probe. The UK has the lead role in the magnetometer instrument on Cassini (Imperial College) and the Surface Science Package on Huygens (Open University). UK industry had developed many of the key systems for the Huygens probe, including the flight software (LogicaCMG) and parachutes (Martin Baker). These mission critical systems need to perform reliably in some of the most challenging and remote environments ever attempted by a man made object.

Notes to Editors

Press Contacts

Peter Barratt - PPARC Press Office Tel: 01793 442025. Email: Mobile: 0787 9602899

Gill Ormrod - PPARC Press Office Tel: 01793 442012. Email: Mobile: 0781 801 3509

Science Contacts

Professor Carl Murray, Queen Mary, University of London - Co-I on the Imaging Science Subsystem (Cassini) Office: 0207 8825456 Email:

Professor John Zarnecki, Open University - PI on the Science Surface Package (Huygens) and Co-I on the Huygens Atmospheric Instrument. Available on mobile this week. Office : 01908 659599 Mobile: 07769 943883. Email:

Mark Leese, Open University - Science Surface Package (Huygens) and Huygens Atmospheric Instrument team. Tel: 01908 652561. Email:

Professor Michele Dougherty, Imperial College - PI on the Magnetometer instrument (Cassini) Contact through Abigail Smith, Imperial Press Office. Tel: 020 7594 6701 or 07761 799089. Email Email:

Cassini Electron Spectrometer (CAPS-ELS)

Dr Andrew Coates, Mullard Space Science Laboratory, UCL Tel: 01483 204145. Email: Mobile: 07788 448318

Dr Ingo Mueller-Wodarg, Imperial College (Titan science, Cassini science, INMS team) Tel: 020 75947674. Mobile: 07973 271816. Email:

LogicaCMG - Contact: Nick Shave, Space & Satcoms Operations Manager, LogicaCMG. Email: LogicaCMG PR - Alex Rowley. Tel: 0207 4197331. Email:

For full list of UK contacts see previously issued media note at

Further information and latest images

ISS imaging team website:

Titan Background

Titan is a highly complex world and is closer to a terrestrial planet than a moon typical of the outer planetary systems. Titan was first seen by Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens (after which the ESA probe is named) in 1655.

Not only is Titan the largest of Saturn's satellites, it is also larger than the planets Mercury and Pluto, and is the second largest satellite in the solar system (Jupiter's Ganymede being larger). It is the only satellite in the solar system with appreciable atmosphere, composed mostly of Nitrogen, but also contains aerosols and hydrocarbons, including methane and ethane. Titan's atmosphere was first confirmed in 1944 when Gerard Kuiper confirmed the presence of gaseous methane with spectroscopy.

Titan's peak surface temperature is about 95 K (-178 degrees C) and surface pressure is 1.6 Earth atmospheres. At this temperature and pressure, many simple chemicals that are present in abundance (methane, ethane, water, ammonia) provide materials in solid, liquid and gaseous form which may interact to create exotic features on the surface. Precipitation, flowing liquids, lakes and eruptions are all possible.

Titan orbits Saturn at a distance of just over 20 Saturn radii (1,222,000 km/759,000 miles) which is far enough to carry the moon in and out of Saturn's magnetosphere. Very little is known about Titan's interior structure, including whether it has its own magnetic field.

Titan's surface has been difficult to study, as it is veiled by a dense hydrocarbon haze that forms in the dense stratosphere as methane is destroyed by sunlight. From the data collected so far, dark features can be seen crossing the equatorial region of Titan, with a large bright region near longitude 90 degrees now named Xanadu, and possibly a large crater in the northern hemisphere.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Cassini-Huygens mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL.

The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) is the UK's strategic science investment agency. It funds research, education and public understanding in four broad areas of science - particle physics, astronomy, cosmology and space science.

PPARC is government funded and provides research grants and studentships to scientists in British universities, gives researchers access to world-class facilities and funds the UK membership of international bodies such as the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, CERN, the European Space Agency and the European Southern Observatory. It also contributes money for the UK telescopes overseas on La Palma, Hawaii, Australia and in Chile, the UK Astronomy Technology Centre at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh and the MERLIN/VLBI National Facility.

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