Titan Calling

Since it started orbiting Saturn last June, the Cassini mission has returned incredible images of the gas giant, its dazzling rings and its enigmatic moons. But its most dramatic chapter will come this January, when a European lander probe (Huygens) that has been piggybacking on Cassini for the last seven years is sent on a fiery plunge into the murky atmosphere of Saturn’s largest and most mysterious moon, Titan–a chapter that would have ended in disaster, save for an engineer called Boris Smeds.

Titan is completely covered by a thick orange smog of hydrocarbons, and scientists have speculated that oily oceans of methane and ethane may roil beneath the cloaking clouds. After slamming into the moon’s atmosphere at 21,000 km/hour, Huygens will take two-and-a-half hours to descend through the atmosphere, slowed by parachutes. On its way down it’s expected to transmit a scientific bonanza from its cameras and instruments, a bonanza that will be picked up by special radio receivers onboard Cassini and then relayed back to Earth.

But unbeknownst to anyone, a lurking flaw in Cassini’s receivers meant that the data received by Cassini were going to be hopelessly scrambled. Along with his allies, ESA engineer Boris Smeds developed and championed a rigorous test that revealed the flaw and its cause in time for corrective action to be taken. Doing this required Smeds to battle bureaucracy, travel from his desk in Darmstadt, Germany, to an antenna farm deep in California’s Mojave Desert, and use all his engineering insight and creativity to expose the flaw before time ran out.

IEEE Spectrum and space expert James Oberg take you inside that titanic struggle in the October 2004 issue of Spectrum.

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