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Landing on Titan: A Bouncing Re-play!

 ESA / D. Ducros

Back in January 2005, the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe parachuted onto Saturn’s moon, Titan.

Thanks to a detailed analysis over seven years later, researchers have pulled together what happened to the probe at touchdown. The analysis is providing clues as to the very nature of the Titan’s surface.

The bottom line: The lander did not “splat” down – rather, it bounced, slid and wobbled to its resting spot.

Scientists reconstructed the chain of events of Huygens landing by analyzing data from a variety of instruments that were active during the impact, in particular changes in the acceleration experienced by the probe.

Detailed looks at the motion of the Huygens probe seconds after landing suggest that Huygens dug a hole 12 cm deep, before bouncing out onto a flat surface. The probe, tilted by about 10 degrees in the direction of motion, then slid 30–40 cm across the surface.

Stefan Schröder of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research led the work, along with E. Karkoschka and R. Lorenz, publishing their findings in Planetary and Space Science.

Final resting place

The study shows that the probe slowed due to friction with the surface and, upon coming to its final resting place, wobbled back and forth five times, with each wobble about half as large as the previous one.

Huygens’ sensors continued to detect small vibrations for another two seconds, until motion subsided nearly 10 seconds after touchdown.

Had the probe impacted a wet, mud-like substance, its instruments would have recorded a ‘splat’ with no further indication of bouncing or sliding.

The surface must have therefore been soft enough to allow the probe to make a hole, but hard enough to support Huygens rocking back and forth.

“We also see in the Huygens landing data evidence of a ‘fluffy’ dust-like material – most likely organic aerosols that are known to drizzle out of the Titan atmosphere – being thrown up and suspended for around four seconds after the impact,” says Schröder.

The Cassini–Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C.

Take a look at the landing based on the new research by going to:

http://www.esa.int/esaCP/SEMJP13S18H_index_0.html

By Leonard David

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