JEFFREY BROWN: After a seven-year journey aboard the spacecraft Cassini, the European space probe Huygens made a two and a half hour descent by parachute, and landed, apparently softly and safely, on the surface of Titan, Saturn's largest moon. This afternoon it began transmitting scientific data back to earth, including several images.
Scientists have had a long wait, but their hope is that information collected about Titan's atmosphere will shed light on the origins of life on earth. One of those scientists is Shaun Standley, an engineer with the European Space Agency. He's stationed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Welcome, Mr. Standley.
First I want to ask you why Titan? Why go there? What was the point of the mission?
SHAUN STANDLEY: Titan is one of the most mysterious objects in the solar system, it's a very large moon and has a large thick atmosphere, and is one and a half times as thick at the surface as the Earth's atmosphere. That's very surprising. Titan's atmosphere has some resemblance to the Earth's atmosphere in that it has a very a high nitrogen content and smog.
RAY SUAREZ: One scientist was quoted as saying Titan was like a time machine and is like what earth might have looked like then.
SHAUN STANDLEY: Yes, indeed. It has nitrogen methane and hydro carbon trace elements in its atmosphere but no oxygen. And this is possibly very similar to the primordial Earth atmosphere before the development of biological chemistry.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, from an engineering standpoint, this must have been quite a feat. I imagine you were holding your collective breaths this morning.
SHAUN STANDLEY: Yes, indeed. Everybody at JPL and at the European Space Operation center in Germany was elated by what we saw. This has been a very long mission and Huygens is very much a one shot deal. So when we first saw the signal spring up that gave us confirmation that we had successfully entered the atmosphere and Huygens was descending under the parachute, it was a very joyous time for us all.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now I know the early analysis is just beginning but some of these photos have come back. I want to show them and you can tell us maybe what we are seeing. One suggests water channels.
SHAUN STANDLEY: Yes. This was taken from about 150 kilometers altitude, and we are getting a resolution of about 40 meters on the surface. And this is suggestive of water channels draining into a coastline. Of course, we are not talking about a water coastline. We are talking about some kind of liquid hydro carbon, but it is still very exciting to see these weathering and drainage processes on the surface of such an alien moon.
JEFFREY BROWN: What kind of liquid might it be, and what clues would that give us?
SHAUN STANDLEY: Well, it could be liquid methane or liquid ethane or perhaps one of the heavier hydrocarbons, we really don't know yet. And yes, it's what we are going there to find out. It is going to take a few days and weeks to really conclude exactly what we are seeing.
JEFFREY BROWN: Okay let's look at another of the photos' this one shows some boulders.
SHAUN STANDLEY: This was taken very close to the surface. But we don't know exactly how close yet. That information hasn't come out yet. But we think we are looking at ice boulders about ten or twenty centimeters across on a relatively flat plane and it looks like Huygens chose a pretty level landing site.
JEFFREY BROWN: The last one was taken during the descent, I gather. What are we seeing in this one?
SHAUN STANDLEY: Well, we are not exactly sure. This shows dark patches with very straight edges, so that once again it is suggestive of liquid abutting a solid surface. But we are really not quite sure what we are looking at here. It's going to take a lot more analysis to decide if we really are looking at some kind of liquid phenomenon or different types of texture in the terrain on the surface.
JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us what other kind of data is being collected up there. What exactly is it looking at?
SHAUN STANDLEY: Well, Huygens is mostly an atmospheric probe. It is not really a land mission like some of the Mars missions. And between 165 kilometers altitude, all the way down to the surface, Huygens did a complete atmospheric itemization of the constituents and the physical properties, pressure, temperature, and electrical properties and temperature and pressure. So there is a lot more science to come out yet. It is not just all imagining.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you mentioned the Mars mission. Unlike the Mars rovers, which were sending data back for months and months, this was a very small window, wasn't it? Tell us why. Tell us how that worked.
SHAUN STANDLEY: Yes, indeed. The Mars rovers have solar rays on their back and they get some sunlight during the day and they can charge up their batteries and continue to work the next day. Huygens really couldn't operate from sun power because it is so far away. There is very little energy we could use for that. We are completely dependent on batteries that have been traveling for seven years and we can't charge up. So when we separated from the Cassini orbiter, really we just had the five batteries that we brought with us to power us for the next seven hours.
JEFFREY BROWN: What you've got now is basically what you get?
SHAUN STANDLEY: That's right. That's right. When the Huygens probe went over the horizon, Titan with respect to the Cassini orbiter, that's pretty much all the data we will get, although we did continue to try to track the probe carrier signal with Earth-based radio telescopes. We may get data out of that. It really is the four hours and thirty-six minutes we collected with the Cassini orbiter that will be the mission data set.
JEFFREY BROWN: The overall project of Saturn was a joint mission with NASA and the Europeans and the Italian Space Agency. But today was really special for the European space community. Tell us about its importance.
SHAUN STANDLEY: Well, the Huygens probe, this is very much a collaborative effort with the Cassini orbiter built by NASA, the Huygens-Henlow provided by the Italian Space Agency, but the Huygens probe was designed, built and operated by the European space agency. And this is the first time mankind has landed a spacecraft, an object in the solar system. So for us to be able to participate in such a wonderful collaboration is a really great achievement.
JEFFREY BROWN: I had a chance to watch the press conference in Germany today and there were tears of joy.
SHAUN STANDLEY: Yes. Everybody was very emotional at the European Space Operation Center. It's --some of these scientists have been working on this mission for 20 years, and it is just wonderful for them to finally see the fruits of all their years of labor.
JEFFREY BROWN: Okay. Shaun Standley, thank you very much for joining us.
SHAUN STANDLEY: Great pleasure. Thank you.