Brussels, 17 Jan 2005
The European Space Agency (ESA) is celebrating one of the greatest successes in its history, following the Huygens probe's safe touchdown on the surface of Titan - Saturn's largest moon - on 14 January.
Confirmation that Huygens had survived its descent through Titan's hazy atmosphere was received when the Green Bank radio telescope in West Virginia, US, picked up a faint but unmistakable signal from the probe.
As Huygens began sending back the first detailed pictures of Titan across 1.5 billion kilometres of empty space, scientists at the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, could finally toast a job well done.
'The Huygens scientists are all delighted. This was worth the long wait,' said Jean-Pierre Lebreton, ESA's Huygens mission manager. Dr Lebreton and his colleagues had hoped that the probe would transmit data for at least three minutes after touchdown, but in the event its instruments continued to function for over three hours. 'Titan has already given us much more than we expected,' he said.
Having studied the first breathtaking images of Titan, scientists say that the moon's surface is covered with drainage channels and canyons that flow into what appears to be a vast ocean composed of a dark tarry substance. Colour images reveal that the surface of Titan is bright orange, with a tangerine sky. The pictures also appear to show a coastline and a river bed where liquid had once flowed, and what could be a bank of methane fog covering the landscape.
'It is clear that the surface was soft,' Dr Lebreton revealed. 'The best image I can give is of a crème brûlée, with a crust on the surface and softer material underneath. We also know that on impact, a little methane evaporated in contact with a hot tube of one of the instruments.'
One of the main reasons for sending Huygens to Titan is that researchers hope that the moon may provide clues to the chemical conditions and processes that preceded life on Earth. Together with data from the US-built Cassini spacecraft - which delivered Huygens to Titan - scientists hope to develop an unprecedented understanding of Saturn's largest moon.
The Cassini-Huygens mission is the result of cooperation between ESA, NASA and the Italian Space Agency (ASI). In total, 10,000 people have worked on the 2.5 billion euro project, including scientists from 19 different countries.
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe paid tribute to the success of Huygens: 'The descent through Titan's atmosphere and down to its surface appeared to be perfect. We congratulate ESA for their spectacular success. We're very proud of the Cassini-Huygens teams that helped to make this both an engineering and scientific victory, and we appreciate the dedication and support from our international partners.'
But the ecstatic mood of the 250 scientists and technicians at mission control in Darmstadt was best summed up by ESA's space science director David Southwood. 'The gods smiled on us,' he said.
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