May 29, 2020

Astro-Vid Of the Week: Landing on Titan

An artist’s conception of Huygens, now silent on the surface of Titan.

(Credit: ESA).

History was made nine years ago today, when the European Space Agency’s Huygens spacecraft successfully landed on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Released 20 days prior on Christmas Day, Huygens survived its descent and lasted 1.5 hours on the icy moon’s surface before succumbing to the extreme cold. The probe managed to return images during descent and from the surface, and the feat still stands as the most distant landing on another world to date.

And to top it off, scientists and engineers had little idea what they were headed into; Huygens could’ve easily landed in a rolling sea of liquid methane, or disappeared into a slushy extraterrestrial quicksand.

The landing and surface data were a complete bonus. What Huygens came to rest on had the consistency of wet sand. A few days later, a team at the University of Arizona put together an amazing descent video, something that we still find mesmerizing to watch to this day:

Though bizarre, it’s worth watching several times to take in the wealth of data displayed. You can see the descent, orientation and speed of the probe as it approaches the surface of the alien world. And you can really see how the winds aloft took Huygens for a ride as well!

And its just thrilling to watch the surface of Titan come into a hazy view from below. The chimes and whistles contain info as well, noting which imager is being utilized and the wind speed and rotation of the spacecraft under the chute.

Enjoy, and ponder when we’ll head back to this enigmatic moon begging for further exploration.

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