Caution: This moon is flammable


Saturn's largest moon apparently is lashed regularly by rain made of liquid methane, forming pools, cutting river beds and eroding rocks in much the same way that forces have shaped the Earth, scientists said Friday.

The European Space Agency's probe that landed on Titan's frozen surface a week ago put Europe's stamp on the distant reaches of the solar system with its discoveries of a mysterious, methane-rich globe.

"We've got a flammable world, and it's quite extraordinary," said Toby Owen, a scientist from Honolulu's Institute for Astronomy who was charged with studying the moon's atmosphere.

Black-and-white photos from the Huygens probe show a rugged terrain of ridges, peaks, dark vein-like channels and apparently dry lakebeds on the moon 744 million miles away.

On Earth, methane is a flammable gas. On Titan, it is a liquid because of the intense pressure and cold -- 274 degrees below zero.

"There is liquid that is flowing on the surface of Titan. It is not water -- it is much too cold -- it's liquid methane, and this methane really plays the same big role on Titan as water does on Earth," said mission manager Jean-Pierre Lebreton. "There are truly remarkable processes at work on Titan's surface and in the atmosphere of Titan which are very, very similar to those occurring on Earth."

A sensor about the size of a police officer's nightstick on the front of Huygens probed beneath the moon's crust and found a material with the consistency of loose sand.

Channels on the surface are evidence of methane rain. There are also what appear to be river systems and deltas, frozen protrusions riddled by channels, apparent dried-out pools where liquid has perhaps drained away, and stones -- probably ice pebbles -- that seem to have been rounded by erosion.

"Does it rain only once a year? Is there a wet season once a year? Does it rain more frequently? We don't know," said another member of the team, Martin Tomasko of the University of Arizona. "The feeling is that in the place we landed, it must rain fairly frequently, but we can't be more precise than that."

The area is "more like Arizona, or someplace like that, where the river beds are dry most of the time," he added. "Right after the rain, you might have open flowing liquids, then there are pools, the pools gradually dry out, the liquid sinks down into the surface. Perhaps it's very seasonal."

The river beds are darkened by what seem to be particles of smog that fall out of Titan's atmosphere, coating the terrain. The dirt apparently gets washed off the ridges by the methane rain to collect in the river channels.

It did not appear to be raining when Huygens descended through Titan's haze on parachutes, "but it has been raining not long ago," Lebreton said.

Scientists believe the dark smog particles are formed by Titan's methane, breaking up in the atmosphere. That raised another question: Where does the methane come from?

"There must be some source of methane inside Titan which is releasing the gas into the atmosphere. It has to be continually renewed, otherwise it would have all disappeared," Owen said.

But he also cautioned that they should not generalize too much from the area they surveyed about what the rest of Titan might look like.

Lebreton, the mission manager, said a next possible step in Titan exploration would be to send mobile probes, perhaps balloons to float around before landing.

The Mars Rover team has already contacted him to say that "they really now are dreaming of sending their rovers on the surface of Titan," he added. "This is highly possible -- that we can now dream seriously of sending rovers on the surface of Titan. We just need the money."

The probe was named after Titan's discoverer, the 17th-century Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens.

Huygens was spun off from the Cassini mother ship on Dec. 24. The $3.3 billion Cassini-Huygens mission to explore Saturn and its moons was launched in 1997 from Cape Canaveral, Fla., a joint effort between NASA, ESA and the Italian space agency.

Titan is the first moon other than the Earth's to be explored, and David Southwood, ESA's director of science programs, reflected Europe's pride in the accomplishment.

"Hello America, we're in the exploration business, too," Southwood told reporters.

European Space Agency:



Huygens probe lands on Titan on Friday


Huygens trajectory spot on

Huygens approaching Titan

Not the Death Star! A photo of the Huygens probe approaching Titan

12 January 2005

Early on Christmas Day 2004, the Cassini mothership flawlessly released ESA's Huygens probe. But how do we know that it is on the right course and how accurately can we tell?

Since Huygens has no propulsion system of its own, it had to be put on course for its descent before it was released.

As planned, a fine tuning of the Cassini trajectory took place on 22 December to place Huygens on its nominal entry trajectory.

While Huygens will remain on this trajectory until it plunges into Titan's atmosphere on 14 January, the Cassini orbiter performed a deflection manoeuvre on 28 December to avoid crashing onto the moon.

Huygens is scheduled to reach Titan's upper atmosphere at about 10:06 CET on 14 January, entering the atmosphere at a relatively steep angle of 65 degrees and a velocity of about six kilometres per second.

The fine-tuning manoeuvre, called 'Targeting Clean-up', was critical: if the entry angle is too steep, the probe could overheat and burn up in the atmosphere; if the angle is too shallow, the probe might skim like a pebble on the surface of a lake and miss its target.

After the probe's separation from Cassini, telemetry data were collected by NASA's Deep Space Network stations in Madrid, Spain, and Goldstone, California. From these data confirming the release, we know the speed after release, and that the probe is spinning as planned to keep stable. Images from Cassini's cameras showing the probe drifting away were taken on 25-27 October.

Although only a few pixels across, these images taken at different distances between the probe and the orbiter helped navigators to reconstruct the probe's trajectory. Using the backdrop of known stars, and pinpointing Huygens's position relative to Cassini, the probe's trajectory was reconstructed using radio and optical navigation techniques.

This information is important to help establish the required geometry between the probe and the orbiter for radio communications during the probe descent on 14 January. It also shows that the probe and Cassini are well within the predicted trajectory accuracy.

Jean-Pierre Lebreton, ESA's Huygens Mission Manager said: "We know now that Huygens is going to hit Titan's upper atmosphere with a high precision. We are using this latest information to update our Huygens trajectory prediction. However, we still can't say precisely where Huygens is going to impact on the surface as the touchdown longitude will be most influenced by the drift of the parachute caused by the wind. This may be as large as 300-400 kilometres eastwards."

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