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January 14, 2005

NSS members awed by images of Titan's shores

January 14, 2005 -
The members of the National Space Society have been waiting for
this very moment for a long time, and now it is here. After 20 years
of effort and seven years of waiting, the Huygens probe has landed
on Titan, 900 million miles away, rewarding scientists with spectacular
pictures of a bizarre terrain. This is the very first truly
cryogenic world with a solid surface that a probe from
earth has landed on. The images of potential shores are astounding.
The "rocks" here may be made out of ice, and any volcanoes might
release water. All those who worked on and then waited for results
from Cassini and Huygens for so many years should now be truly
congratulated. This is one of the most significant collaborations
by international science ever undertaken. Our horizons, minds and
hearts have been widened again.

John Strickland, an NSS board member from Austin Texas,
provided the following analysis of results so far:

No Science Results have yet been released to my knowledge. At the
very brief 5:00 EST press conference, 2 more images were released
at the conference and to the ESA Cassini Web site. A couple of
poorer quality additional raw images are available on
No more images may be released today. The web site:
, has image 3 at the top,
image 1 in the middle, and image 2 at the bottom.

The first image, taken at 10 miles, shows the drainage channels
previously mentioned. (This image may or may not be much higher
resolution than the second one taken at 5 miles. The web site gives
conflicting info.) The totally different scene leads us to think
the latter is true, or that wind has carried the probe over a
different area as it descended. The dark area at the right of the
image is probably not liquid, but simply the darker part of the
landscape surface. (The surface of the whole planet seems to be
divided into bright and dark areas.) Note that the channels are
NOT draining towards the dark area, but at 90 degrees or parallel
to it. It is clear that an area in the middle of the frame and
next to the dark region is a higher elevation area, since the
channels are draining away from it. No channel in the image seems
to be crossing or touching the dark area, so we cannot say if it
is higher or lower than the bright, channeled area. There are some
lighter channels closer to the dark area. The dark area seems to
have some texture on it, which could be more image compression
artifacts, or maybe frozen ethane or methane slush floating in a
shallow puddle of ethane. The areas most likely to have liquid are
those which are darkest. We seemed to see some channels in the
radar images, which indicates that a channel network could extend
over large areas of the surface. Next Question: What is the liquid,
where does the liquid come from and where does it end up? Why are
the channels dark? How wide and deep are they?

These bright and dark areas have fairly well defined sharp edges,
and often somewhat geometric (triangular or curving, as shown in
the second image, taken at 5 miles. These sharp edges are what
give the impression of a coastline or shoreline. In this image,
none of the drainage channels show at all. Perhaps, part of one
of the somewhat triangular bright areas is the area with the
channels. These may be similar to the same kind of shapes shown
on the radar. However, the current image are optical, not radar,
and rough areas would not necessarily be brighter.

In both of these images, there are specks which look like huge
boulders. These are camera artifacts caused by the fiber-optics
of the camera and lens system used in the Huygens probe, and will
be removed when the images are cleaned up more. The surface image
(3) seems to show none of them.

The third image gives us our first glimpse of the surface of Titan
from near or on the surface. Well, sorry, but I do not see any
cryogenic plants or animals in the picture! This does not rule out
microscopic cryogenic life, but it sure makes it a lot less likely.
What we do see are some rocks or large boulders. These are probably
made out of ice, which at minus 290 degrees F are as hard and tough
as granite. The foreground rocks are lighter in color than the
ones in the background, and also seem to be much more rounded, as
if they were large beach boulders. There is a smooth rock-free
zone between the two groups of rocks. There are very few if any
angular rocks, like pieces of limestone flagstones, with straight
edges. We have no idea how these rocks were formed and why they
are scattered on the surface. I see no sign of any body of water
in the direction the camera is pointed. (We should get a complete
panoramic view around the lander, since it apparently survived for
an extended time on the surface.) They have not said if it would
keep on taking images after it landed. It is also not clear if
this image is actually taken on the surface or about 10-20 feet
above it.

More later this evening


Posted by apsmith at January 14, 2005 11:04 PM



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