Huygens Articles

Nature 438, 758-764 (8 December 2005) | doi:10.1038/nature04347; Received 19 June 2005; Accepted 21 October 2005; Published online 30 November 2005

An overview of the descent and landing of the Huygens probe on Titan

Jean-Pierre Lebreton1, Olivier Witasse1, Claudio Sollazzo3, Thierry Blancquaert2, Patrice Couzin4, Anne-Marie Schipper4, Jeremy B. Jones5, Dennis L. Matson5, Leonid I. Gurvits6, David H. Atkinson7, Bobby Kazeminejad8 & Miguel Pérez-Ayúcar1

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Titan, Saturn's largest moon, is the only Solar System planetary body other than Earth with a thick nitrogen atmosphere. The Voyager spacecraft confirmed that methane was the second-most abundant atmospheric constituent in Titan's atmosphere, and revealed a rich organic chemistry, but its cameras could not see through the thick organic haze. After a seven-year interplanetary journey on board the Cassini orbiter, the Huygens probe was released on 25 December 2004. It reached the upper layer of Titan's atmosphere on 14 January and landed softly after a parachute descent of almost 2.5 hours. Here we report an overview of the Huygens mission, which enabled studies of the atmosphere and surface, including in situ sampling of the organic chemistry, and revealed an Earth-like landscape. The probe descended over the boundary between a bright icy terrain eroded by fluvial activity—probably due to methane—and a darker area that looked like a river- or lake-bed. Post-landing images showed centimetre-sized surface details.

  1. Research and Scientific Support Department,
  2. Scientific Project Department, ESA Science Directorate, ESTEC, 2200 AG, Noordwijk, the Netherlands
  3. ESA Operations Directorate, ESOC, 64293 Darmstadt, Germany
  4. Alcatel Alenia Space, BP 99, F-06156, Cannes-La Bocca, France
  5. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91109, USA
  6. Joint Institute for VLBI in Europe, PO Box 2, 7990 AA Dwingeloo, The Netherlands
  7. University of Idaho, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Moscow, Idaho 83844-1023, USA
  8. Space Research Institute, Austrian Academy of Sciences, 8042 Graz, Austria

Correspondence to: Jean-Pierre Lebreton1 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to J.-P.L. (Email: jean-pierre.lebreton@esa.int).

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