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Science & Space

Space probe on way to Saturn moon

By Dave Santucci

Huygens, a 703-pound probe, was designed by the European Space Agency.
Huygens, a 703-pound probe, was designed by the European Space Agency.
Gallery: Saturn and moon

• Interactive: Cassini spacecraft
• NASA: Cassini-Huygensexternal link
• ESA: Cassini-Huygensexternal link
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
Space mission
Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and its moon Titan:

  • SATURN: Planet second in size to Jupiter with a diameter of 74,898 miles (120,511 km). Seven rings of ice and rock particles with 31 known moons. Visited by Pioneer 11 (1979), Voyager 1 (1980), Voyager 2 (1981).

  • TITAN: Largest Saturnian moon. May harbor organic compounds similar to those predating life on Earth. Temperature is minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit.

  • CASSINI ORBITER: Launched October 15, 1997. Spacecraft is 22 feet long and weighs 12,593 pounds (5,667 kg). Runs on nuclear power. Will orbit Saturn 76 times over four years.

  • HUYGENS PROBE: Spacecraft is 8.9 feet in diameter and 705 pounds (317 kg). Will be released from Cassini on December 24 and enter Titan's atmosphere on January 14.

  • MISSION COST: $3.3 billion, shared by NASA, ESA, Italian Space Agency.
  • (CNN) -- A small space probe launched from NASA's Cassini spacecraft late Friday is making a beeline for the surface of Saturn's hazy moon Titan, taking an historic trip to unlock the stubborn mysteries of a perplexing place -- discoveries that might even shed light on Earth's own origins.

    The Huygens lander, built by the European Space Agency, separated from Cassini shortly after 10 p.m. ET, under the watchful eyes of U.S. and European control rooms in California and Germany, without any problems reported.

    On January 14, if all goes as planned, the $600 million probe -- about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle -- will descend through Titan's thick atmosphere and parachute toward the surface, taking pictures and scientific measurements all the way to touchdown -- or, possibly, splashdown, because scientists aren't entirely sure what to expect under the moon's heavy clouds.

    Based on pictures taken by Cassini about 745 miles (1200 kilometers) away from Titan, the landing site appears to be "for lack of a better word, shoreline," although the probe will likely touch down on a solid, rather than a liquid, surface, said Kevin Grazier, science planning engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

    Once it arrives, Huygens will have a very brief window in which to take pictures and make measurements on Titan.

    The spacecraft has no more than three hours of battery life, a majority of which will be taken up by the descent.

    Engineers only expect to get 30 minutes of data from the surface.

    Describing the conditions the probe is likely to encounter, Candy Hansen, NASA's Titan expert, said "it's going to be very cold."

    "I'd wear my very warmest boots. I expect it would come across as a very cold, blustery place, but yet with this sort of eerie beauty of Saturn in the sky," she said.

    Scientists believe Titan's chemistry could be very similar to that of early Earth before life formed.

    One of the goals of the Huygens mission is to find out whether that assumption is correct.

    After a seven-year voyage from Earth, Cassini has been in Saturn's orbit since July 1, sending back groundbreaking images of the planet's rings and the closest-ever pictures of its 33 moons, including Titan.

    Scientists at the European Space Agency are hoping that the Huygens mission proves more successful than its Mars Beagle, which plowed into the red planet's surface a year ago and was never heard from again.

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