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Scientists Ecstatic At Result Of Titan Probe

Click for 98 Frame Movie of this view of Titan after landing - 1.6MB - Image data NASA/ESA/ASU
Darmstadt, Germany (AFP) Jan 16, 2005
"The gods smiled on us," said ESA's space science director David Southwood, one of about 250 scientists and technicians who were blissfully happy to be out of a job Sunday following the successful conclusion of the Huygens-Cassini mission to Titan.

It was end of mission for the men and women who succeeded in landing the Huygens probe on the brooding, vast moon of Saturn Friday.

But the task was just beginning for those who will analyze the extraordinarily detailed pictures and scientific data sent back across a 1.5 billion kilometers (900 million miles) void during the space capsule's descent and landing.

"If you consider that the data from a single overflight of Titan in 1980 by the American Voyager probe have not yet been completely deciphered, then it is clear that the data from Huygens will provide work for generations of researchers," said Athena Courtenis, a planetologist at the Meudon observatory just outside Paris.

The European-built probe, two-thirds the length of a VW Beetle, sent pictures and data to its American mothership, the Cassini space craft, which relayed them to a National Aeronautics and Space Adminstration (NASA) facility in the United States.

At best, scientists had hoped Huygens would keep transmitting for three brief minutes after hitting Titan's surface. Instead, they said instruments probably continued to function for at least three hours after the 15-kilometer-an-hour touchdown.

"Titan has already given us much more than we expected," said Jean-Pierre Lebreton, the director of the Huygens mission at the European Space Agency, whose control center is in Darmstadt.

Researchers, who believe Titan may provide clues to the chemical processes that preceded life on earth, will comb the data for vital clues whether Titan is covered by rock, methane ice or an ocean of chemicals.

Judging from the photos, the scientists speculate that the moon's surface is covered with drainage channels, canyons and rivulets winding their way to a vast ocean of methane. Lebreton said they could see what appeared to be a coastline and the bed of a river through which liquid, probably a mixture of methane and ethane had flowed.

"It is clear that the surface was soft," Lebreton said. "The best image I can give is of a creme brulee, 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."

The successful landing was greeted with whoops of joy in the control center, but the jubilation was tinged with sadness for people who have dedicated up to 30 years of their careers to the project, and who can now look forward to nothing quite as exciting.

"The very instant when your dream comes true, you know it is the end of human adventure that you are missing already," the mission's operations chief Claudio Solazzo, said with a tear in his eye.

"I'm in the clouds," said Roger-Maurice Bonnet, who was the scientific director of the European Space Agency in 1984 at the time it was decided to go ahead with the mission, which was in competition with five others. "And to think that the old head of NASA wanted to stop the project."

In the end, ten thousand people worked on the 3.2-billion dollar (2.46-billion euro) project, including scientists from 19 nations.

NASA associate director Alfonso Diaz said he watched "25 years of his life and 25 years of friendships" pass before his eyes as the spaceship made its 150-minute descent. "I was very tense on Friday morning," he said. "At the end of the day I was ecstatic."

Greek planetologist Athena Coustenis admitted to being "emotional" as the craft landed, and added, "What amazed me was immediately to have pictures of the surface that one absolutely could not have imagined."

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Cassini Sends Holiday Greetings From Saturn On Route To Titan
Boulder CO (SPX) Dec 25, 2004
From its station nearly 1.2 billion kilometers (746 million miles) from Earth, the stalwart Cassini spacecraft sends holiday greetings to Earth with this lovely color portrait of Saturn and two of its moons.

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