INFO 28-1997: Huygens will soon set off for Titan
16 September 1997A true voyage of discovery begins next month with the launch of the Cassini-Huygens mission towards Saturn. After a seven-year journey, the European Space Agency's probe called Huygens will detach itself from the Cassini Saturn orbiter and plunge into the hazy atmosphere of Titan, Saturn's largest moon.
When it parachutes slowly down to the surface of Titan, in November 2004, Huygens will unmask the most enigmatic object in the Solar System. Baffled and tantalized, space scientists don't know how this moon of Saturn acquired a dense atmosphere, which is rich in nitrogen like the Earth's air but also possesses many carbon compounds. The scientists can't say whether the surface of Titan is solid or liquid, or a bit of each. But many are convinced that Titan offers them their best chance of discovering what the Earth and its chemistry were like, before life began. A heat shield will protect Huygens as it slams into Titan's atmosphere at 20,000 kilometres per second. A succession of parachutes will adjust Titan's speed of descent through the atmosphere. Radio signals from the probe will convey the results to the Cassini orbiter, for relaying tothe Earth, and will also reveal how Huygens and its parachute are blown about by the winds of Titan, during the descent.
Huygens carries six sets of instruments devised by multinational teams of scientists in Europe and the USA. They will analyse the chemical composition of the haze that hides Titan's surface. They will gauge the weather of Titan during Huygens' descent, and image the clouds and the surface. A surface science package will report the true nature of Titan's surface. A televised launch Cassini-Huygens will be launched by a NASA Titan IVB rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Station in Florida. The earliest launch date is 6 October, but this is now likely to slip, to allow for the repair of minor damage to insulation within the Huygens probe (see ESA Press Release 27-97).
Provided the launch occurs before 4 November, there will be no delay in the arrival at Saturn and Titan. ESA will provide a live TV transmission, free of charge, for European news organizations and other organizations wishing to receive it. Live pictures of the launch will be accompanied by interviews with scientists and engineers of ESA's Huygens mission. The transmission will use a transatlantic relay to a European satellite transponder. Technical details for receiving the transmission will be announced three days before the launch, in an ESA press release and at the ESA Internet site