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 PASADENA, Calif. (Reuters) - The European-built space probe Huygens entered the atmosphere of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, on Friday, sending back indications it was alive and well and leaving scientists eager for its first research data.

The Saturn orbiter Cassini, which acted as the relay station for Huygens, sent signals back showing that it had finished its acquisitions from Huygens and had turned toward Earth to begin transmission of a likely three hours of data.

Huygens began its two-hour descent to Titan's surface in the early morning after a seven-year journey piggybacked on the Cassini space probe and a final one-way trip of about three weeks on its own.

The probe soon began transmitting a signal to scientists monitoring its progress at the European Space Agency's Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany, and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

That carrier signal did not return data, but indicated the probe had switched on its transmitter, deployed its parachute and was descending to the surface in good health.

The transmission of the signal, which scientists compared to a dial tone, continued strong for the next two hours, giving the team hope that Huygens' six instruments and camera were taking in the sights and sounds of Titan.

"Because of this, we can look in the sky and when we see Saturn we can say 'We've been there, we've left our mark,"' said Carolyn Porco, leader of the Cassini imaging science team, in a live ESA broadcast on NASA TV. "I'm looking forward to another decade of exploration and this is only the beginning."

Cassini will record the data from Huygens on four redundant systems.

"This is a safety measure. We really don't want to lose any beat of this very, very precious data," said Claudio Sollazzo, head of Huygens operations for the ESA. Sollazzo said they expected data on the probe's descent before getting any indications about the little-known surface of Titan.

MOON WITH ATMOSPHERE

Scientists believe the organic chemical reactions taking place on Titan resemble the processes that gave rise to life on Earth 4 billion years ago. Its atmosphere is mostly nitrogen, like Earth's, but its surface temperatures of about minus 292 F make it inhospitable to life.    Continued ...

Posted on Friday, January 14, 2005 11:17 PM | Back to top


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