Three ESA missions are due to send down robotic `spaceprobes` when they arrive at their alien destinations. Since these craft will be going where no one has gone before, how can scientists be sure what it will be like down there? How do you ensure that your spaceprobe is prepared for anything?
Experts take every precaution to ensure that these probes will not burn up entering an alien atmosphere, or meet a spectacular, untimely end via a crash landing on inhospitable terrain. These probes expect the worst.
For example, the Huygens probe, which is currently on its journey to Titan, Saturn`s largest moon, on-board the Cassini spacecraft, can withstand temperatures of up to 18 000°C in the shockwave in front of the heat shield. This is about three times the Sun`s surface temperature. Why? The heat generated as Huygens travels through Titan`s thick atmosphere will be immense.
Jean-Pierre Lebreton, Huygens Project Scientist, says "Things will get interesting once Cassini draws close to Saturn. We`ll get the best views of Saturn and Titan that we ever had. We`ll also observe Titan to verify that our models are correct. If we find the atmospheric density is different from what we expected, we could consider slightly changing the angle at which Huygens enters to protect it from overheating or the parachute deploying wrongly. However, late changes may bring new risks."
Monica Talevi | European Space Agency
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