Getting closer to the Lord of the Rings
This time next year, ESA’s Huygens spaceprobe will be descending through the atmosphere of Saturn’s largest moon, becoming the first spacecraft to land on a body in the outer Solar System.
Infrared view of Saturn
Credits: Erich Karkoschka (University of Arizona), and NASA
Earlier this month, the giant ringed planet Saturn was closer to Earth than it will be for the next thirty years. All the planets orbit the Sun as if on a giant racetrack, travelling in the same direction but in different lanes.
Those in the outer lanes have further to travel than those on the inside lanes. So, Earth regularly ‘laps’ the further planets. On New Year’s Eve 2003, Earth overtook Saturn, drawing closer than at any time in the next three decades.
Through a small telescope, Saturn is normally visible as a creamy yellow ‘star’. You may be able to see the ring system that the planet is famous for, and its largest moon Titan will show up as a tiny dot of light.
That tiny dot is the destination for ESA’s Huygens probe and may hold vital clues about how life began on Earth. Titan is the only moon with a thick atmosphere in the Solar System.
Astronomers think this atmosphere might closely match the one Earth possessed millions of years ago, before life began. Certainly Titan’s atmosphere is rich in carbon, the chemical necessary for life on Earth. What is more, this is all stored in ‘deep freeze’, ten times further from the Sun than the Earth.
The big mystery is Titan’s surface, which is hidden by a cloud layer. This is why ESA built Huygens, to probe through this layer which is impenetrable by Earth-based observations.
In January 2005, Huygens will parachute below the clouds to see what is really going on. Its battery of instruments will return over 1000 images as it floats down and samples the chemistry of this exotic place.
The Titan probe was named Huygens in honour of the Dutch astronomer who discovered Titan in 1655. Launched in October 1997, Huygens is currently in space, hitching a ride on NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.
So look forward to seeing more of Saturn and a tiny European spacecraft called Huygens, that in one year’s time will make an historic landing in the quest to uncover the origins of life.
Franco Bonacina | ESA
The most recent press releases about innovation >>>
Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:
An international team of scientists has proposed a new multi-disciplinary approach in which an array of new technologies will allow us to map biodiversity and the risks that wildlife is facing at the scale of whole landscapes. The findings are published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. This international research is led by the Kunming Institute of Zoology from China, University of East Anglia, University of Leicester and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.
Using a combination of satellite and ground data, the team proposes that it is now possible to map biodiversity with an accuracy that has not been previously...
Heatwaves in the Arctic, longer periods of vegetation in Europe, severe floods in West Africa – starting in 2021, scientists want to explore the emissions of the greenhouse gas methane with the German-French satellite MERLIN. This is made possible by a new robust laser system of the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen, which achieves unprecedented measurement accuracy.
Methane is primarily the result of the decomposition of organic matter. The gas has a 25 times greater warming potential than carbon dioxide, but is not as...
Hydrogen is regarded as the energy source of the future: It is produced with solar power and can be used to generate heat and electricity in fuel cells. Empa researchers have now succeeded in decoding the movement of hydrogen ions in crystals – a key step towards more efficient energy conversion in the hydrogen industry of tomorrow.
As charge carriers, electrons and ions play the leading role in electrochemical energy storage devices and converters such as batteries and fuel cells. Proton...
Scientists from the Excellence Cluster Universe at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich have establised "Cosmowebportal", a unique data centre for cosmological simulations located at the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. The complete results of a series of large hydrodynamical cosmological simulations are available, with data volumes typically exceeding several hundred terabytes. Scientists worldwide can interactively explore these complex simulations via a web interface and directly access the results.
With current telescopes, scientists can observe our Universe’s galaxies and galaxy clusters and their distribution along an invisible cosmic web. From the...
Temperature measurements possible even on the smallest scale / Molecular ruby for use in material sciences, biology, and medicine
Chemists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in cooperation with researchers of the German Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM)...