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Updated 2:00 PM February 11, 2005




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U-M scientists and engineers vital participants
in Huygens mission to Titan

Most Earthlings are probably done 'ooohing' and 'ahhhing' over the astonishing pictures of outer space that the Huygens probe sent back in mid-January, but U-M scientists only have begun to decipher an unexpected wealth of data about Titan, a moon of the planet Saturn.
An artist's rendering of the Huygens mission (Courtesy NASA)

Professor Sushil Atreya, Professor Emeritus George Carignan and researchers from both the Goddard Space Flight Center and the University of Hawaii couldn't be happier with the performance of the 700-pound suicide probe.

"The Huygens probe has discovered a new world," says Atreya, professor of atmospheric, oceanic, and space sciences. "And there is so much more to learn."

Atreya and Carignan have waited more than seven years for this moment. On Dec. 25, the Huygens probe rode out to Saturn on the side of the Cassini orbiter. On Jan. 14, the probe descended through Titan's atmosphere and crash-landed on its surface.

The Huygens probe collected data for two hours during its descent through Titan's atmosphere and beamed it up to Cassini overhead before hitting Titan, where scientists and mission planners had hoped the probe would operate for a meager three minutes. However the resilient craft kept sending data for an astonishing one hour and 10 minutes from the surface.

In fact, had Cassini not gone over the horizon, Huygens might have continued to transmit data for another two hours, researchers say. The carrier frequency from Huygens, like the dial tone of a telephone, was detected by radio telescopes on Earth for at least two hours after it lost contact with Cassini.
An uncovered gas chromatograph mass spectrometer (Photo by U-M Space Physics Research Laboratory)

A main element of the success of the Huygens mission was due to the hardiness of the gas chromatograph mass spectrometer (GCMS), an instrument built in part by engineers at the U-M Space Physics Research Laboratory.

The first pictures and data sent back to the team of scientists suggest that Titan is Earth-like in its meteorology and geological features. Images show a network of river-like channels that empty into Titan "lakebeds."

"The GCMS data provide strong evidence of a thick cloud or haze layer of methane in Titan's middle troposphere around 20 km above the surface," Atreya says. "And there is a reservoir of liquid methane on the surface. On Titan, methane seems to play a similar role as water in the Earth's meteorology."

The GCMS is a versatile gas chemical analyzer designed to identify and measure chemicals in Titan's atmosphere. During descent, the GCMS also analyzed aerosol samples that were collected, heated and vaporized by the Aerosol Collector Pyrolyzer (ACP), another instrument on Huygens on which Atreya also is an investigator.

Finally, the GCMS measured the composition of Titan's surface. All of this unexpected data means more work for the team of scientists.

"The big question for Titan is how the methane gets replenished," Atreya says. "In the absence of recycling it would be destroyed by the Sun's ultraviolet light in 10 million years, which would, in turn, lead to a gradual collapse of Titan's atmosphere.

"The GCMS measurements, together with supporting data from other Huygens instruments, is beginning to provide some important clues to the source and recycling of methane on Titan, and we expect a clearer picture to emerge in the months to come."

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