The European Space Agency on Saturday said the first pictures of Saturn's moon Titan taken by the Huygens probe showed what appeared to be rivulets winding their way towards the shoreline of a vast ocean.
Huygens' photo show likely drainage channels on Titan's surface
The photos were taken Friday after the Huygens lander successfully parachuted down to the surface of Saturn's largest moon, beaming back more than 300 photographs of Titan's misty surface and sound recordings from across the solar system.
"It is impossible to resist speculation that these are some kind of drainage channels, canyons also maybe a shoreline," said Marty Tomasko, a University of Arizona specialist who heads the project's imaging team, showing a picture taken 16 kilometers (10 miles) from the surface.
Some pictures taken by the tiny robot laboratory appeared to show boulders dotted across a flat landscape, others showed what looked like channels cutting through the moon's surface. Showing a shot of boulder-like formations taken close-up, Tomasko said that the objects "could be ice water blocks", measuring no more than 15 centimetres (six inches) in diameter.
However he warned that it would take years of analysis before the pictures finally give up their secrets. "Don't expect any geological explanation at this point," he said.
David Southwood, scientific director at the ESA, also warned reporters at the ESA control centre in Darmstadt, Germany that the data would take years to decrypt. "I am blown away by what we saw yesterday, it is extraordinary," he told reporters. "But you have to understand the science will be done in the future."
Jean-Pierre Lebreton, directors of the Huygens mission at the ESA, said the data gathered had fulfilled the project's most ambitious objectives. "We already have a clearer picture of Titan today," he said.
The probe separated from its US-built mother-ship Cassini to land on Titan, which scientists hope could provide clues about the origins of our own planet, Titan, the largest satellite of Saturn, was chosen for the $3.2-billion (€2.46 billion) transatlantic venture as, intriguingly, it is the only moon in the Solar System that has a substantial atmosphere.
Clues to life on Earth?
Its thick mix of nitrogen and methane is suspected to be undergoing chemical reactions similar to those that unfolded on Earth billions of years ago. That process eventually provided the conditions for life on our planet.
This composite was produced from images returned Friday, Jan. 14, 2005, by ESA's Huygens probe during its successful descent to land on Titan. It shows a full 360-degree view around Huygens. The left-hand side, behind Huygens, shows a boundary between light and dark areas. The white streaks seen near this boundary could be ground 'fog', as they were not immediately visible from higher altitudes. As the probe descended, it drifted over a plateau (centre of image) and was heading towards its landing site in a dark area (right). From the drift of the probe, the wind speed has been estimated at around 6-7 kilometres per hour. These images were taken from an altitude of about 8 kilometres and a resolution of about 20 metres per pixel.
Huygens plunged to the surface of Titan earlier Friday, carrying half a dozen instruments to assess the moon's weather system and methane-rich atmosphere during a two-and-a-half-hour parachute glide. It was the farthest landing from Earth ever attempted. Cassini, built by NASA, gave the probe a piggyback ride to Saturn and its moons. Their epic seven-year trip covered 2.1 billion kilometers (1.3 billion miles).
Huygens is named after the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens, who discovered Titan in 1655. Cassini's name comes from the Italian Jean-Dominique Cassini, who discovered the Saturn's satellites Iapetus, Rhea, Tethys and Dione. In 1675, he discovered what is called the "Cassini Division," the gap between Saturn's rings.