Landing on Titan: A Slow-Motion Close-Up

Ten years ago, the ESA's Huygens probe touched down on Saturn's bizarre, possibly life-harboring moon.

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Jan 18 2015, 12:00pm

​Image: NASA/ESA/JPL

​When the European Space Agency's Huygen probe touched down on the surface of the Saturnian moon Titan in January of 2005 ​it was the farthest any spacecraft had traveled from Earth and landed. It still holds this honor, though hopefully for not too much longer.

The probe lasted about an hour before going dark, delivering data that's still be chewed to this day, with help from the ongoing work of its parent spacecraft, Cassini, which is now on its ​second extended exploration mission within the Saturnian system. In fairness, flybys are a rather less risky endeavor than landings.

Image: NASA/JPL

This collection of fisheye images was snagged as Huygen descended by parachute through the thick atmosphere of Titan. With about seven times more mass per unit of surface area than Earth, that mostly-nitrogen atmosphere supports thick, sunlight-blocking layers of haze. It's the only known natural satellite to have a developed atmosphere, though some large part of it is ​basically hydrocarbon smog

In the upper-right image, the lander was about 20 kilometers above the surface, still obscured by a gnarly outer layer of orange murk (the orange-ness remains somewhat a mystery). By the time we get to the bottom rightmost image, it's just about a quarter of a kilometer up and fast approaching a - 290 degrees F landscape covered over in liquid methane and ethane, yet perhaps hiding a subsurface liquid-water ocean.