Cassini Begins Exploring Titan

( [email protected] ) Jul 05, 2004 02:45 PM EDT

After a 2.2 billion mile, 7 year journey into the outer solar system, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft arrived at Saturn this week to begin its four year mission tour. During this time, the spacecraft will take pictures of Saturn and its moons, run analysis on the makeup of the moons and planet, and send the Huygens probe into Titan on a parachute descent toward the surface. Cassini has already begun its first missions – to analyze the makeup of Saturn’s largest moon Titan.

On Saturday, July 3, scientists working with the spacecraft released what are the clearest pictures taken of Titan. The latest images reveal a set of clouds on the moon’s surface the size of Arizona, and light and dark spots across the surface that the team is still analyzing.

Scientists believe there are organic compounds on Titan similar to those on the primordial earth billions of years ago. Although there are some potential organic compounds that are visible on the surface as predicted, such as one line that may be a hydro-carbon river, scientists admitted by saying that “It's different from anything we've ever seen before… We're still trying to understand the surface of Titan.”

One of the puzzles that the team has faced so far is the seemingly lack of liquid on the moon’s surface. Initial analysis of the moon showed geologic activity including wind and erosion, and perhaps the development of lakes and rivers. Kevin Baines, a member of the visual and infrared spectrometer team, said that scientists were disappointed when they did not catch the flashes of reflected light from the moon, light that would be reflected off pools of liquid.

"We thought we'd see some flashes, and we haven't seen any. So we're a little perplexed," Baines said after a news conference at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

Cassini is planned to fly by Titan 45 more times over its tour, at times coming within 600 miles of the moon. In January, the Huygen probe will be released into the moon, perhaps providing scientists with the best opportunity to view the moon up close. Over the duration of its 2 ½ hour descent, the probe will send images back to Cassini to re-broadcast to earth.

Titan was Cassini’s first encounter since it began orbiting Saturn earlier this week. The Cassini-Huygens spacecraft is a $3.3 billion project, jointly funded by NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency.