Dec. 30, 2004
by Dr. Tony Phillips
Get ready for two of the strangest hours in the history of space exploration.
Two hours. That's how long it will take the European Space Agency's Huygens probe to parachute to the surface of Titan on January 14th. Descending through thick orange clouds, Huygens will taste Titan’s atmosphere, measure its wind and rain, listen for alien sounds and, when the clouds part, start taking pictures.
No one knows what the photos will reveal. Icy mountains? Liquid methane seas? Hot lightning? "It's anyone's guess," says Jonathan Lunine, a professor of planetary science at the University of Arizona and a member of the Huygens science team. "We might not even understand what we see, not immediately."
Astronomers have been watching Titan, Saturn's largest moon, for centuries. ...But when NASA's Voyager spacecraft flew by Titan in 1980, observers realized it was something special. Titan is huge: bigger than the planets Mercury and Pluto. It has a huge atmosphere, too: three times taller than Earth's and one and a half times as massive. The air on Titan is choked with organic compounds akin to smog. Some of these molecules are building blocks of life. Could life begin on a world where the surface temperature dips 290o F below zero? "Probably not," says Lunine, but, again, no one knows.
...A microphone onboard Huygens will listen for thunder and other sounds. For the first time, we'll get to hear what another world sounds like.
(Read the rest here.)
Eeee! Icy alien mountains! Otherworldly thunder! My fellow space cadets, pray to whatever you believe in to let Huygens survive touchdown. Because this could shape up to be so cool.
Momentarily fangirling over the space program,