It took seven years to get there, but in January the Huygens probe landed on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, after hitchhiking a ride on NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. As Cassini approached the ringed planet, Huygens split off and later parachuted to Titan’s surface.
Scientists held their breath. No one knew what Titan was like under the orange haze of its atmosphere. Would Huygens splash into a sea or crash into ice? As it turned out, neither. The probe landed on a thin, solid surface, then sank a bit into a soft interior. Scientists said it was like landing on pudding with a hardened crust on top.
After its squishy landing, Huygens sent back photographs of a landscape that looked like an eerie version of Earth’s. There are rocks, but they are made of ice. And there are river channels leading to the edge of a lake, but the lake is filled with liquid methane. Huygens also discovered evidence of volcanoes that spew ice instead of lava.
By studying Titan, scientists hope to learn more about the origins of life on our planet. Titan’s atmosphere is similar to what Earth’s atmosphere was like billions of years ago. But don’t expect to see odd life forms waving into Huygens’s camera. It’s way too cold on Titan for plants, animals, or even aliens.
Copyright Carus Publishing Company May/Jun 2005
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