Our SpaceFlight Heritage: 12 years ago, Huygens touched down on Titan
Twelve years ago, on January 14, 2005, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Huygens probe touched down on the surface of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. From this distant world, it collected images and data about a world viewed by many scientists as an analog of early Earth.
The probe’s historic touchdown marked humanity’s first successful soft landing of an uncrewed craft on a body in the outer Solar System.
Named for 17th-century astronomer Christiaan Huygens, who discovered the large moon in 1655, the probe was launched with NASA’s Cassini Saturn orbiter in October 1997 atop a Titan IV(401)B rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 in Florida (the present East Coast launch site of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets).
On December 25, 2004, nearly six months after Cassini began orbiting Saturn, Huygens separated from its mother craft. Twenty days later, it made its descent to Titan’s surface.
Within just hours of landing, the probe studied and analyzed Titan’s hazy atmosphere. It captured hundreds of photos during the descent, including images of steep ravines and rugged highlands crisscrossed by dark drainage channels.
The probe also measured Titan’s winds and studied its complex organic chemistry.
All the data Huygens collected was returned to Earth via Cassini, which served as a relay station high above.
Huygens landed on a dark surface that appears to be a dry lakebed, where it remains to this day.
Still in orbit around Saturn, Cassini has since made several close flybys of Titan. Now plunging through Saturn’s ring plane, Cassini will end its mission on September 15 with a destructive dive into Saturn’s atmosphere. It will mark the conclusion of a mission that began in the 1980s.
Cassini scientist Alex Hayes of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, noted that Huygens’ findings show a landscape that mimics that of early Earth.
“During its descent, the Huygens probe captured views that demonstrated an entirely new dimension that comparison and highlights that there is so much more we have yet to discover. For me, Huygens has emphasized why it is so important that we continue to explore Titan.”
Cassini imaging team lead Carolyn Porco of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, stated that the lander revealed evidence that liquid hydrocarbons either currently flow or once flowed on Titan’s surface, in the form of streams and drainage channels.
“Huygens’ images became a Rosetta stone for helping us interpret our subsequent findings on Titan,” she said.
By studying Titan, scientists feel they can learn more about the moon’s potential habitability and also gain new insight into the chemistry that might have been present on an early Earth, emphasized Jim Green, NASA director of planetary science.
“It completely changed our understanding of this haze-covered ocean world,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California.
Huygens’ major science findings are available for viewing here: Huygens Touchdown
Video Courtesy of NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.