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TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: April 4, 2006

Voyage to the Mystery Moon homepage

Chronicling a bold voyage of discovery—the Cassini/Huygens mission to Saturn and its enigmatic moon Titan—"Voyage to the Mystery Moon" delivers striking images of these fascinating planetary bodies nearly a billion miles from Earth. Saturn's broad rings hold myriad mysteries, and Titan, whose soupy atmosphere is similar to the one that enshrouded our planet billions of years ago, may hold clues to the origins of life. In hopes of answering some long-standing astrophysical questions, teams from NASA and the European Space Agency gamble years of effort to both ease the Cassini spacecraft into a workable orbit around Saturn and land the Huygens probe on Titan's never-before-seen surface.

A story of curiosity and imagination, this program highlights how many big questions remain unanswered about our own solar system and just how much we have yet to explore. Saturn, with its unique and beautifully constructed rings and diverse set of moons, holds mysteries that have tantalized researchers ever since the Voyager probes sent back breathtaking pictures of this wondrous planet.

We do know that the moon Titan is one of only four bodies in the solar system to have a substantial atmosphere, and the only one whose present-day chemical composition resembles that of the primitive Earth four billion years ago. This environment, dominated by nitrogen and methane, appears to have all the ingredients needed to produce complex molecules such as amino acids, one of the key building blocks of life. For biologists, chemists, and astronomers alike, it is a giant laboratory promising an inside view of how life began on our own planet. (Hear sounds from Titan.)

"Voyage to the Mystery Moon" follows the story of NASA and the European Space Agency's Cassini-Huygens mission, designed for multiple flybys past Saturn and Titan as well as an actual landing on the mysterious orange moon. It is an audacious undertaking, engaging scientists in the U.S. and Europe since 1990. These experts share with NOVA the inspiration, creativity, ambition, and near-obsessive dedication required of such a long-term venture. They have, after all, put all their eggs in one spaceship.

The design, construction, testing, and launch of Cassini-Huygens offers an inside look at the intricacies of space engineering and science. Cassini is built to orbit Saturn, using its 12 instruments and sophisticated cameras to capture images from orbit. Meanwhile, on Titan, the Huygens probe serves as a stationary explorer, outfitted with six instruments designed to see the surface of the moon and test the composition of its soil and atmosphere. It all demands unnerving precision from mission planners: when a post-launch communication trial reveals a small but devastating glitch, it takes more than two years to devise and implement the ingenious solution.

Success requires that the Cassini-Huygens craft complete mind-boggling feats. It must travel over two billion miles across space, utilizing the gravity of several planets to slingshot its way to Saturn. There is no room for error as the unique planetary alignment that makes this possible will not be seen again for 600 years. Cassini has to then pass through Saturn's rings undamaged before launching the Huygens probe towards Titan's surface. Everything must work perfectly—the explosive bolts, the heat shield, each one of the three parachutes that were packed almost eight years before, prior to the launch on Earth.

Dramatic CGI illustrates the spacecrafts' journey and brings to life their extraordinary discoveries about the surface and atmosphere of Titan—a place where methane rain falls from orange skies and volcanoes erupt with ice-cold lava. Along the odyssey, Cassini's cameras provide haunting images of Jupiter, our solar system's largest planet, and Phoebe, Saturn's deeply cratered outermost moon.

Finally, in 2005, seven years after its launch, the Cassini satellite reaches its destination and jumps into orbit. In addition to its investigation of Titan, Cassini's prime objective is to help answer the most basic questions about Saturn's rings: what are they made of and how were they formed (see Anatomy of the Rings)?

With Cassini in position, the Huygens space probe prepares to touch down. As the time arrives, NOVA is at mission control. It is an excruciating wait for contact, and the tension is palpable as screens remain blank long past the expected communication point. For many of these scientists, this mission is the culmination of their careers. When at last the numbers appear, a cheer goes up from the crowd. Data pour in along with the first surprising pictures from Titan's surface.

Even more surprising (because totally unexpected) are images sent back of Enceladus, a tiny Saturnian moon that appears to have liquid water gushing out of its south pole. Where there's water, there could be life, and Enceladus ("en-CELL-a-duss") may have suddenly usurped Jupiter's moon Europa as the next place to check for life beyond Earth. (Hear Carolyn Porco, head of the Cassini imaging team, talk about the latest from Enceladus.)

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Huygens probe

An artist's depiction of the Huygens probe, just released from the Cassini spacecraft, on its descent towards Titan, Saturn's singular moon.

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Voyage to the Mystery Moon
Life on a Tiny Moon?

Life on a Tiny Moon?
Astrophysicist Carolyn Porco talks about Enceladus, a new target for alien life.

How to Get an Atmosphere

How to Get an Atmosphere
Of solid bodies in the solar system, only four have major atmospheres. Why?

Sounds of Titan

Sounds of Titan
Hear the first-ever audio recording from one billion miles away.

Anatomy of the Rings

Anatomy of the Rings
View striking images that are helping to solve mysteries about Saturn's rings.

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