Sir Patrick Moore: Why is it important? Because it may tell us how life was kick-started

Share
Related Topics

On 15 October 1997, the Cassini spacecraft began a journey of an entirely new kind. It was destined for the outer solar system, and to deposit a small probe, Huygens, on the surface of Saturn's largest satellite, Titan.

On 15 October 1997, the Cassini spacecraft began a journey of an entirely new kind. It was destined for the outer solar system, and to deposit a small probe, Huygens, on the surface of Saturn's largest satellite, Titan.

Very little was known about Titan, because its surface was hidden by a dense atmosphere rich in nitrogen. If Huygens did land, would it come down on a layer of ice, solid rock, slush, or would it splash down in a chemical ocean? Of course, Titan is very cold, with a surface temperature of minus 180 degrees centigrade, but nobody knew quite what to expect. Well, the mission has been a triumphant success. Huygens made a perfect landing, and went on sending back data after arrival for well over an hour and a half, much longer than the planners dared to hope. It is a major step forward, partly because of the complexity of the whole operation but also because it shows that we can explore worlds far beyond the inner part of the Sun's family.

Titan is a weird place. The images sent back show channels which must have been cut by liquid, possibly methane; the landing was made upon a surface of about the consistency of wet sand, and there are "boulders", a few inches across at most. No chemical lakes have been found, but of course the pictures have only just been received, and examining them properly will take many weeks. Why is Titan so important? Mainly because it is the only planetary satellite to have a substantial atmosphere, and it may in some ways be not unlike the Earth of around 4,000 million years ago. It does contain all the ingredients needed for life, and could tell us a great deal about how life may have been "kick-started" in a hostile environment. This in turn may be of great value to medical science as a whole. We may also learn more about how planetary bodies evolve.

Huygens is dead: its work has been well done. But the "mother ship" Cassini, which carried Huygens and released it on Christmas Day, is very active. It relayed Huygens' signals back to Earth, and is now well into its own programme of studying the ring system and also Saturn's other satellites. Cassini has much to tell us over the next year. But all in all, it is Titan which has been the most vital part of the mission. This has been one of the greatest triumphs of the space age, and nobody concerned will ever forget "Titan Day".

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Middleweight

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's fastest growing full s...

Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

£35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

Recruitment Genius: Commercial Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Estimating, preparation of tech...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will work as part of a smal...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron has reiterated his pre-election promise to radically improve the NHS  

How can we save the NHS? Rediscover the stiff upper lip

Jeremy Laurance
 

Thanks to Harriet Harman, Labour is holding its own against the Tory legislative assault

Isabel Hardman
Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club that later became synonymous with Hillsborough has dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor