About 12 years ago, one of the most amazing space missions we’ve ever undertaken took place. January 14, 2005, was the day we landed a probe – called Huygens – on Saturn’s moon Titan.
NASA recently paid homage to the incredible joint mission with ESA, releasing a video that shows images from the lander as it descended to the surface. The footage is not new, but was re-released to highlight the anniversary of the feat.
Huygens separated from its parent spacecraft, Cassini, on December 24, 2004. It then began a 20-day coast towards Titan, before entering the atmosphere. A heat shield kept it safe as it passed through, and a parachute gently lowered it to the ground. Aside from returning stunning images, Huygens also sampled Titan’s atmosphere and measured the wind speed.
Prior to the descent, scientists were unsure what Huygens would find. The atmosphere of Titan is so thick that we had never seen below the clouds, leading some to theorize that the moon might be encompassed in a global ocean of liquid hydrocarbons.
What Huygens actually found as it broke through the clouds was a rocky surface, streaked with dark lines that suggested rivers of methane were flowing on the ground. It ultimately touched down in what is thought to be a dry lakebed, with its final images showing rounded pebbles.
Check out the video above
"The Huygens images were everything our images from orbit were not," Carolyn Porco, the Cassini imaging team lead at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in a statement. "Instead of hazy, sinuous features that we could only guess were streams and drainage channels, here was incontrovertible evidence that at some point in Titan's history – and perhaps even now – there were flowing liquid hydrocarbons on the surface."
Further studies by the Cassini spacecraft, which has been in orbit around Saturn since July 2004 (but will come to an end this September), have revealed lakes of liquid hydrocarbons on the surface. This makes Titan the only place in our Solar System other than Earth with bodies of liquid on its surface.
Titan is the sole world we have landed a spacecraft on in the outer Solar System, although we have soft-landed on six other bodies elsewhere – Venus, the Moon, Mars, two asteroids, and a comet. But it is perhaps one of the greatest achievements in the history of space exploration. Given that Titan may have conditions suitable for life, many hope it will not be long before we return.