Cassini-who?

First image of Titan's surface, 14 January 2005
It’s midnight GMT. What are you watching? On Channel 4, Jackie Stalone is out of the house. On BBC 2 Cassini’s baby Huygens (after a 3 billion kilometre flight) has arrived on Titan’s surface. I learn from the Open University’s terrifically enthusiastic coverage that that surface is hard – perhaps clay or frozen snow. Photos during Huygens’ descent suggest there may be an ocean and water courses, sonar says there’s some high cloud, surface images show boulders or snowballs. Holy shit.

The bit that, as usual, humbles me most: the scientists who have worked for 17 years for a two-and-a-half hour mission. Right now, they’re skipping around the ESA‘s control room like my kids. The guy who spent twelve years working on the force meter (an instrument whose working life, now over, amounted to one twentieth of a second) says the data so far shows a surface like ‘creme brulee’ (crunchy on top, soft underneath). The imaging guy is desperate to get back to the 300 or so pictures Huygens was able to return via its one working radio channel – so far he’s seen only ten. I’m speechless, really.

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