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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


About the National Space Society:
The National Space Society (NSS) is an independent, grassroots organization dedicated to the creation of a spacefaring civilization. Founded in 1974, NSS is widely acknowledged as the preeminent citizen's voice on space. NSS counts thousands of members and over 50 chapters in the United States and around the world. The society also publishes Ad Astra magazine, an award-winning periodical chronicling the most important developments in space. For more information about NSS, how to join or donate, or the annual International Space Development Conference, visit

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Telephone: (202) 429-1600

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Updated Tue, Jul 22, 2008 at 14:51:25
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