One week after the European space probe Huygens successfully landed on Saturn's moon Titan, the European Space Agency released more details and revealed future plans.
Icy volcanoes lie under Titan's thick clouds
The year 2005 could not have started better for the European Space Agency. Not only did the space probe Huygens successfully land on Saturn moon Titan's surface, it was able to send back breathtaking photos from the surface along with valuable data.
In the week since it landed, ESA has had time to analyze the data Huygens sent back to earth and the results are exciting, according to the experts at the Space Agency, who held a celebration press conference in Paris on Friday.
The lander Huygens flew to Saturn with Cassini which in turn relayed the first photos from Titan's surface
"There is liquid on Titan. It has rained long ago; there is liquid methane," said Jean-Pierre Leberton, director of the Huygens mission at ESA. In order for methane to exist in a liquid form, temperatures on Titan's surface must be below -179 degrees Celsius.
In addition to finding traces of methane on both the moon's surface and in its atmosphere, Huygens also found evidence of nitrogen. Oxygen, however was not found on Titan, which is probably a good thing, as atmospheric scientist Toby Owen explained, otherwise the planet "would have exploded a long time ago."
An European Space Agency image beamed back by Huygens, showing short, stubby drainage channels leading to a shoreline.
US researcher Marty Tamasko of the University of Arizona, who was allowed a rare look at the data sent back by Huygens, said Titan's surface shows evidence of remarkably earthlike processes, such as abrasion, erosion and precipitation.
While Huygens only relayed a few hours' worth of information, scientists expect to spend years analyzing its findings and interpreting what it means for the Earth's development.
Ambitious future plans
The breathtaking success of the Huygens mission is the first highlight of a year packed with ESA launches. A European rocket will set off in the fall for a journey to Venus. The final goal for European scientists is to send probes to the other three planets of the inner solar system.
The first leg got underway in January 2004 when ESA attempted to land its Mars Express on the red planet. Unlike the Huygens endeavor, however, the Mars Express and its on-board probe the Beagle, failed to land successfully and transmit data from the planet's surface. The crash and burn was a major embarrassment to Europe, especially after NASA succeed in landing two of its probes shortly thereafter.
But the Mars Express disaster has not dampend the frontier spirit of ESA as it pushes ahead with even more ambitious projects including a manned-mission to Mars in the next 20 years. More tangible is the BepiColombo mission planned for 2012, which will explore Mercury, the planet closest to the sun.
In the more commercial field, Europe is scheduled to launch the first Galileo satellite which will create a new navigational web for Earth. It promises to exceed the capabilities of the US-run GPS system.
The rest of the world is not standing idly by. On July 4, the US probe Deep Impact is expected to smash into the comet Tempel 1 to gain information about the solar orbiters. Also, the space shuttle Discovery is expected to fly again, and China is set to launch its second manned flight.
For astronomy buffs, the year 2005 will be an exciting one.