Monday, August 24, 2009


A few years ago we were all on the edge of our seats, wondering what the Huygens lander would find on Titan (above) when it landed. The mission was an historic success, but the photos were slow in coming and eventually public interest turned to other things. When the pictures were finally released an awful lot of people never saw them.

Well, Theory Corner readers won't be among them. Here, from the European Space Agency site, is Titan.

Before I get to the Huygens photos, let's get a feeling for the kind of world Titan is by looking at a radar photo (above) taken by Huygens' orbital companion, Cassini. It shows a world dominated by land, but dotted all over with large methane lakes.

The delay in assembling the photos came about because the lander (shown in the artist's painting above) was dangling from a parachute and encountered unexpected turbulence in the upper atmosphere. The swinging camera recorded mostly blurs which had to be painstakingly re-constituted in computer labs.

Back to photos again: here's (above) another photo made by Cassini, showing what Huygens saw as it approached the atmosphere.

Switching to Huygens' onboard camera: for a long time we see nothing but haze, then...

...then the first glimpse of land, and a shoreline. The flat area is a dry lake bed.

The bed was recently covered by liquid methane. The green arrows indicate the direction of the flow. Click to enlarge.

Down, down, past mountains and valleys. The color is a guess added by the photo restorers. All of Huygens' photos were black and white.

The lander isn't swinging so much now and the photos are getting clearer.

Finally, the landing! Here's (above) the first, color-coded picture of the surface. The larger rocks in the foreground are about six inches across. The rocks are rounded, indicating erosion by liquid.

The setting sun, as seen on another world.


Jennifer said...

Wow. These are breathtaking.

Isn't Titan the moon that, according to astronomer's theories, may have other life forms or may be able to sustain life (as we know it)?

This is so amazing that this is happening in my lifetime. First, we're getting solid information about Mars, including some evidence that's suggesting that Mars may have supported life forms. Now, we're getting closer looks at other celestial bodies that seemed so far away.

I wish that faster distant space travel would happen in my lifetime, but I don't think that will be the case.

Thuberbaer said...

When I first found out about Titan in 6th grade, I remember being convinced that it was inhabited by organic machine-like creatures that only required methane to survive. They also shat out human bodies for some reason.

Anonymous said... did you ever work with Mel Blanc?

Niki said...

Wow! I never knew we found another planet! The rocks are pretty!

Brubaker said...

AMAZING! I had no idea this was even going on.

Clearly I need to look into space explorations more often.

Kyle said...

wow, nice to get real photos for once. it seems all we usually get are artist renders. who knows how accurate those are.

I'd like to know why we couldn't afford to take color pictures though.

For all we know, those rocks could have a beautiful color pallet.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Anon: Wow! Great video! Even in his retirement years he was still terrific. I never worked with Blanc. His son does voices, but I never met him.

Anonymous said...


Rick Roberts said...

Awe inspiring is the least I can say.

Tim said...

Amazing stuff. Thanks for posting it.

Anonymous said...

those are great, but i can do that last one from scratch in three seconds with photoshop.

Zoran Taylor said...
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