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Last Updated: Saturday, 15 January, 2005, 08:39 GMT
Huygens sends first Titan images
By Paul Rincon
BBC News science reporter in Darmstadt, Germany

One of Huygens' first pictures (Courtesy: European Space Agency)
Huygens captured more than 300 images on its descent
The Huygens space craft has sent back the first images of Saturn's moon Titan, showing what appears to be a shoreline of an oily ocean.

One stunning black and white image reveals what seem to be drainage channels on a land surface leading out into a dark body of liquid.

Another shows a flat surface that is apparently strewn with boulders.

Scientists said Huygens captured more than 300 images as it dived through the moon's atmosphere.

Speaking about the picture of an apparent shoreline, John Zarnecki, principal investigator for the surface science package (SSP) on Huygens said: "If it's not a sea, it could be a lake of tar. And did one see waves?"

The European Space Agency has released images captured from altitudes of 16.2km, 8km and one on the surface.

"The pictures just got better after we passed through the haze," said Marty Tomasko, who leads the probe's imaging team.


He added that the images would still need to be cleaned up and that scientists would have to study the pictures closely to interpret them.

"We may be seeing a coastline, but that does not necessarily mean it's liquid now," mission scientist Andrew Ball, of the Open University told the BBC News website.

"It looks like something has flowed at some time to make those channels. But is it something that has solidified?"

One of two data channels used to record measurements is thought not to have been working on Cassini. As a result, some images taken by Huygens may be missing.

The first colour view of Titan's surface from the ESA's Huygens probe
The first colour view of Titan's surface from the Huygens probe

But the other channel had worked well, officials said.

The probe has been sending back data about the moon since it arrived on Titan - the furthest from Earth a spacecraft has ever landed.

Jean-Pierre Lebreton, mission manager for Huygens said the craft had been active for up to seven hours. He added this was probably down to good design keeping Huygens' instruments warmer than expected despite the temperatures of -179C outside.

"We might even have three floppy disks now," said Professor Zarnecki, referring to the previous assumption that the SSP would only collect enough data to fill a floppy disk.

He said the researchers were happy, but that more work was needed before they could say how successful the instrument's measurements of the surface had been.

Impression of the Huygens probe landing on Titan
1. HASI - measures physical and electrical properties of Titan's atmosphere
2. GCMS - identifies and measures chemical species abundant in moon's 'air'
3. ACP - draws in and analyses atmospheric aerosol particles
4. DISR - images descent and investigates light levels
5. DWE - studies direction and strength of Titan's winds
6. SSP - determines physical properties of moon's surface

Scientists are now piecing together the images, measurements and sounds that are being beamed back to Earth from the Cassini spacecraft, which had carried Huygens for the past seven years.

These should give detailed information on the moon's weather and chemistry.

The sounds of Titan's stormy atmosphere were recorded with an onboard microphone, and scientists hope they might even hear lightning strikes when they analyse the data.

Scientists were relieved when the probe relayed a signal at about 1020 GMT on Friday to say it had negotiated Titan's atmosphere.

This told them the first of three parachutes had deployed, pulling off the probe's rear cover and allowing its antenna to start transmitting.

The European-built probe entered Titan's atmosphere at an altitude of 1,270km (789 miles) at about 1000 GMT.

Dominated by nitrogen, methane and other organic (carbon-based) molecules, conditions on Titan are believed to resemble those on Earth 4.6 billion years ago.

As such, it may tell scientists more about the kind of chemical reactions that set the scene for the emergence of life on Earth.

The Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn in July 2004. It released Huygens towards Titan on 25 December.

The $3.2bn Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and its moons is a joint venture between the US space agency (Nasa), the European Space Agency (Esa) and the Italian Space Agency (Asi).

Scientists reveal the first images from the probe


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