About this Article
Written by: Jasmin Singh
Written on: March 30th, 2002
Tags: aerospace engineering, space
Thumbnail by: NASA/Photo Journal of JPL
About the Author
Jasmin V. Singh was studying Aerospace Engineering, with an emphasis in Astronautics, at the University of Southern California.
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Volume IV Issue III > Touring Titan
Launched in 1997, the Cassini-Huygens mission is a seven-year project that reached Saturn in June 2004. Upon arrival Cassini began four years of data gathering on Saturn and nine of its twenty known moons. In November 2004 the probe Huygens was released and descended to the surface of Titan, Saturn's largest moon. Some scientists view this as a way to travel back in time because Titan is predicted to be under the same conditions as Earth was before life began. During the 2.5 hour descent, data will be gathered on the chemicals contained in Titan's atmosphere, as well as the environmental conditions on the moon, and transmitted back to Earth. Most importantly, scientists will get the first glimpse of the surface with the pictures taken during the descent. This data could possibly change all theories about the origin of life.

A Journey to Unseen Territory

NASA/Photo Journal of JPL
Figure 1: Saturn's largest moon, Titan.
In four years a whole new range of possibilities will open up in the search for the origin of life. This will occur when the spacecraft Cassini reaches Saturn. After a few months of orbiting the planet and relaying pictures back to Earth, Cassini will release the probe Huygens. Huygens is scheduled to land on Titan (see Fig. 1), Saturn's largest moon, in November of 2004. After years of planning, this seven-year journey will come to a climax during the three hours of data that the Huygens probe will gather. The data found on Titan will either change or confirm every theory scientists have about the origin of life.
Most people can easily identify a picture of Saturn. This is thanks to the Voyager mission, the spacecraft that passed Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus during the early 80's and took many pictures of Saturn and some of its moons; these pictures are easily available for everyone to see. There is just one problem: not everything is visible from a fly-by mission. While the Voyager was able to get pictures of Titan, the haze of Titan's atmosphere clouded any possible view of the surface. This haze intrigued many scientists who believe that Titan could be under the same conditions as the Earth was before signs of life. Enter Huygens, the probe that scientists are hoping will gather valuable information about the atmosphere of Titan as well as take pictures of the surface.

Cassini and Huygens?

Christiaan Huygens was a Dutch scientist who developed techniques to improve lenses used in telescopes. In 1655, Huygens discovered Titan and categorized Saturn's rings [1]. Using these improved techniques, in 1675, Italian astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini discovered four other moons as well as a gap in Saturn's rings known as the Cassini division [2]. Both of these men helped increase our knowledge of Saturn and have successfully aroused our interest in the topic. Thus, it is only fitting to name the spacecraft and probe that will be going to Saturn after these two men.

Planning, Planning, Planning

The Cassini-Huygens mission is the second global project undertaken by NASA. The European Space Agency (ESA) built the probe Huygens. Lockheed Martin Federal Systems, an American aerospace company, developed computers for the complex command and data subsystem that keeps Cassini on the right trajectory path. Lockheed included fault-protection software in the event of an emergency where the spacecraft will remain "in a neutral condition" for as long as two weeks at a time while a solution is being engineered here on Earth. While earlier projects had the danger of jamming, TRW, another American aerospace company, solved the problem by designing the solid-state data recorders. Cassini contains two recorders that can each hold up to two gigabytes. In all, Cassini is equipped with 12 sets of scientific instruments and subsystems for "mapping, measuring, and analyzing" the planet and its environment [3].