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Images reveal Titan's secrets

Huygens makes successful landing on Saturn moon

By Michael Coren
CNN

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One of the first images to show Titan's rocky surface.
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NASA has high hopes for the Huygens probe.
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FACT BOX
Cassini-Huygens mission to Titan:

  • TITAN: Largest Saturnian moon. May harbor organic compounds similar to those predating life on Earth. Temperature is minus 292 degrees F (minus 180 C).
  • HUYGENS PROBE: Spacecraft is 8.9 feet in diameter and 703 pounds (317 kg). Was released from Cassini on December 24 and landed on Titan January 14.
  • The probe will sample Titan's atmosphere, measure its wind and rain, listen for alien sounds and take pictures.

    Source: NASA

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    (CNN) -- The first three images from the surface of Titan, largest of Saturn's 33 moons, show what appear to be drainage channels, a shoreline, flooded regions surrounded by elevated terrain and a plain strewn with what may be large ice boulders.

    Scientists analyzing the gray images were ecstatic with what they were seeing, one saying the terrain seemed strangely familiar, not unlike places on Earth, Mars and other planets -- suggesting a commonality in the solar system.

    The images were taken by the Huygens probe, which reached the surface of Titan on Friday morning after being launched from the Cassini spacecraft now orbiting Saturn.

    Jean-Jacques Dordain, director general of the European Space Agency, which led the Huygens mission to Titan, exclaimed "magnifique" as the first image was displayed on screens at ESA mission control in Darmstadt, Germany.

    Others stared in rapt attention, some crying and applauding, as the image appeared.

    The Cassini-Huygens mission is an unprecedented $3.3 billion effort among NASA, the European Space Agency and Italy's space program to study Saturn and its 33 known moons. The two vehicles were launched together from Florida in 1997.

    The first image was snapped from 16 kilometers (10 miles) above Titan's surface. The second was taken at an altitude of 8 kilometers (5 miles). Both showed features as small as 40 meters (132 feet) across.

    Dark winding streambeds and a shoreline were evident in the first image.

    "The drainage channels are not like rivers on Earth, but maybe box canyons with seepage flowing down to what looks very much like a shoreline," said Martin Tomasko, lead scientist for the probe's only optical instrument. "We predicted [this] but we've never been able to see this with any clarity."

    The geologic features were likely carved by a flowing liquid, but not water. Liquid hydrocarbons such as methane or ethane are believed to cover at least part of the surface.

    Temperatures on Titan hover around minus 292 degrees Fahrenheit (180 Celsius) and would immediately freeze any liquid surface water.

    The second image showed dark regions with sharp boundaries surrounded by brighter areas that appeared to be elevated terrain, scientists said. The dark regions appeared to be flatter, suggesting they are flooded or have been flooded, they said.

    The third image, taken as the Huygens probe neared the surface, showed a flat landscape scattered with rocks that may be large ice boulders, scientists said.

    Scientists said at least 350 more images were being processed.

    "We are the first visitors to Titan and the scientific data we are collecting now shall unveil the secrets of this new world," Dordain said as Huygens' first packet of data from Titan was successfully transmitted.

    He called it a fantastic success for Europe and the spirit of international collaboration that brought together 19 nations for the Cassini-Huygens mission.

    Huygens' batteries -- designed to last just a few minutes after touchdown -- continued to power the probe's transmitter for more than two hours after landing.

    The data is now streaming to Earth, via the satellite Cassini, as a worldwide network of radio telescopes captures it.

    Eager scientists, some who have dedicated 25 years to the project, are poring over the data, translating ones and zeros into images and measurements of the moon's atmosphere.

    "This data is for posterity," said David Southwood, director of science for ESA. "It's for mankind. ... Scientists are going to argue as we piece together our place in the universe, of how we came to be. It's just the beginning for our science teams."

    Earlier in the day, radio telescopes confirmed the probe survived re-entry, successfully deployed its three parachutes and landed on the moon's icy surface.

    Cassini received information until it passed beyond the moon's horizon and out of contact. Now Cassini has turned toward Earth and is sending the data to scientists.

    They hope all the data will survive transmission uncorrupted, said Bob Mitchell, program manager for the Cassini-Huygens mission at NASA.

    Huygens reached the surface of Saturn's largest moon on Friday around 7:45 a.m. ET.

    "We have a signal. We know that Huygens is alive meaning the dream is alive," Dordain said. "This is already an engineering success and we will see, later this afternoon, if this is a scientific success."

    The saucer-shaped probe has completed the final hours of its 2.2 billion-mile mission to Titan, an enormous moon larger than the planet Pluto.

    The Huygens probe, about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, spun silently toward Titan after it detached from the Cassini spacecraft on December 24. Cassini will remain in orbit around Saturn until at least July 2008.

    The mission "will probably help answer some of the big questions that NASA has in general about origins and where we came from and where life came from," Mitchell said.

    Titan's atmosphere, a murky mix of nitrogen, methane and argon, resembles Earth's more than 3.8 billion years ago. Scientists think the moon may shed light on how life began.

    Finding living organisms, however, is a remote possibility. "It is not out of the question, but it is certainly not the first place I would look," said Candice Hansen, a scientist for the Cassini-Huygens mission. "It's really very cold."

    A lack of sunlight has put Titan into a deep-freeze, hindering chemical reactions needed for organic life.

    New discoveries

    The mysteries of Saturn, the sixth planet from the sun, have always enticed researchers. Scientists are perplexed why Saturn, a gas-giant composed primarily of hydrogen and helium, releases more energy than it absorbs from faint sunlight.

    Titan is also the only moon in the solar system to retain a substantial atmosphere, one even thicker than Earth's.

    The 703-pound, battery-powered Huygens probe parachuted through Titan's clouds of methane and nitrogen for two-and-a-half hours, sampling gases and capturing panoramic pictures along the way.

    Huygens hit the upper atmosphere 789 miles (1,270 kilometers) above the moon at a speed of about 13,700 mph (22,000 km/h). A series of three parachutes slowed the craft to just 15 mph (24 km/h).

    Chutes and special insulation protected Huygens from temperature swings and violent air currents. Strong winds -- in excess of 311 mph (500 km/h) -- buffeted the craft.

    Its sensors deduced wind speed, atmospheric pressure and the conductivity of Titan's air. Methane clouds and possibly hydrocarbon rain was analyzed by an onboard gas chromatograph. A microphone listened for thunder.

    Three rotating cameras took panoramic views of the moon and a radar altimeter mapped Titan's topography. A special lamp illuminated the probe's landing spot to help determine the surface composition.

    Cassini crossed Saturn's rings without mishap in June 2004 and produced the most revealing photos yet of the rings and massive gas-giant.

    A problem with the design of an antennae on Cassini almost scrapped Huygens' mission, but engineers altered the spacecrafts' flight plans to resolve the transmission problem.

    CNN.com's David Osier contributed to report.


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