Huygens probe

From Academic Kids

Missing image
A scale replica of the probe
An artist's impression of the Huygens probe as it descends through Titan's murky, brownish-orange atmosphere of nitrogen and carbon-based molecules, beaming its findings to the distant Cassini orbiter. The real images suggest that Titan's sky is in fact shrouded in thick cloud making Saturn invisible (and in any case, Saturn never rises above the horizon at the probe's landing site).
An artist's impression of the Huygens probe as it descends through Titan's murky, brownish-orange atmosphere of nitrogen and carbon-based molecules, beaming its findings to the distant Cassini orbiter. The real images suggest that Titan's sky is in fact shrouded in thick cloud making Saturn invisible (and in any case, Saturn never rises above the horizon at the probe's landing site).

The Huygens probe, supplied by the European Space Agency (ESA) and named after the Dutch 17th century astronomer Christiaan Huygens, is an atmospheric entry probe carried to Saturn's moon Titan as part of the Cassini-Huygens mission. The combined Cassini-Huygens spacecraft was launched from Earth on October 15, 1997. Huygens separated from the Cassini orbiter on December 25, 2004, and landed on Titan on January 14, 2005 near the Xanadu region. It landed on land (the possibility that it would land in an ocean was also taken into account in the design). The probe continued to send data for about 90 minutes after reaching the surface.



Huygens was designed to enter and brake in Titan's atmosphere and parachute a fully instrumented robotic laboratory down to the surface. When the mission was planned, it was not yet certain whether the landing site would be a mountain range, a flat plain, an ocean, or something else, and it was hoped that analysis of data from Cassini would help to answer these questions.

The first image released, taken from an altitude of 16 km, showing what is speculated to be drainage channels flowing to a possible shoreline. The darker areas may be a sea of liquid , while the light areas could be islands.
The first image released, taken from an altitude of 16 km, showing what is speculated to be drainage channels flowing to a possible shoreline. The darker areas may be a sea of liquid methane, while the light areas could be islands.

Based on pictures taken by Cassini at 1200 km (750 miles) away from Titan, the landing site appeared to be, for lack of a better word, shoreline. Assuming the landing site could be non-solid, the Huygens probe was designed to survive the impact and splash-down with Titan's liquid surface for several minutes and send back data on the conditions there. If that occurred it was expected to be the first time a human probe would land in an extraterrestrial (i.e. non-Earth) ocean. The spacecraft had no more than three hours of battery life, most of which was planned to be taken up by the descent. Engineers only expected to get at best 30 minutes of data from the surface.

The Huygens probe system consists of the probe itself, which descended to Titan, and the probe support equipment (PSE), which remained attached to the orbiting spacecraft. The PSE included the electronics necessary to track the probe, to recover the data gathered during its descent, and to process and deliver the data to the orbiter, from which it will be transmitted or "downlinked" to the ground.

The probe remained dormant throughout the 6.7-year interplanetary cruise, except for bi-annual health checks. These checkouts followed preprogrammed descent scenario sequences as closely as possible, and the results were relayed to Earth for examination by system and payload experts.

Prior to the probe's separation from the orbiter on December 25 2004, a final health check was performed. The "coast" timer was loaded with the precise time necessary to turn on the probe systems (15 minutes before its encounter with Titan's atmosphere), then the probe detached from the orbiter and coasted in free space to Titan in 22 days with no systems active except for its wake-up timer.

The main mission phase was a parachute descent through Titan's atmosphere. The batteries and all other resources were sized for a Huygens mission duration of 153 minutes, corresponding to a maximum descent time of 2.5 hours plus at least 3 additional minutes (and possibly a half hour or more) on Titan's surface. The probe's radio link was activated early in the descent phase, and the orbiter "listened" to the probe for the next 3 hours, including the descent phase, and the first thirty minutes after touchdown. Not long after the end of this three-hour communication window, Cassini's high-gain antenna (HGA) was turned away from Titan and toward Earth.

Very large radio telescopes on Earth were also listening to Huygens's 10-watt transmission using the technique of very long baseline interferometry and aperture synthesis mode. At 11:25 CET on January 14, the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in West Virginia detected the carrier signal from the Huygens probe. The GBT continued to detect the carrier signal well after Cassini stopped listening to the incoming data stream. In addition to the GBT, eight of the ten telescopes of the continent-wide VLBA, located at Pie Town and Los Alamos, NM, Fort Davis, TX, North Liberty, IA, Kitt Peak, AZ, Brewster, WA, Owens Valley, CA, and Mauna Kea, HI, also listened for the Huygens signal.

The signal strength received at Earth from Huygens was comparable to that from the Galileo probe (the atmospheric descent probe) as received by the VLA, and was therefore too weak to detect in real time because of the signal modulation by the (then) unknown telemetry. Instead, wide-band recordings of the probe signal were made throughout the three-hour descent. After the probe telemetry is finished being relayed from Cassini to Earth, the recorded signal is processed against a telemetry template, enabling signal integration over several seconds for determining the probe frequency. It is expected that through analysis of the Doppler shifting of Huygens' signal as it descends through the atmosphere of Titan, wind speed and direction will be able to be determined with some degree of accuracy. Through interferometry, it is also expected that the radio telescopes will allow determination of Huygens's landing site on Titan with exquisite precision, measuring its position to within 1 km (about two-thirds of a mile) at a distance from Earth of about 1200 million kilometres (750 million miles). This represents an angular resolution of approximately 170 microarcseconds. A similar technique was used to determine the landing site of the Mars exploration rovers by listening to their telemetry alone.


Huygens landing site as determined by descent imagery
Huygens landing site as determined by descent imagery

The preliminary findings confirm that the targeted region is indeed near the shoreline of a liquid ocean. The photos indicate the existence of drainage channels near the mainland and what appears to be a methane sea complete with islands and a mist-shrouded coastline. There are indications of chunks of water ice scattered over an orange surface, the majority of which is covered by a thin haze of methane. The instruments revealed "a dense cloud or thick haze approximately 18-20 kilometers (11-12 miles) from the surface" which is likely the reservoir of methane on the surface. The surface itself appears to be clay-like "material which might have a thin crust followed by a region of relative uniform consistency." One ESA scientist compared the texture and color of Titan's surface to a Crme brle, but admitted this term probably would not appear in the published papers.

On January 18 it was reported that Huygens landed in "Titanian mud", and the landing site was estimated to lie within the white circle on the picture to the right. Mission scientist also reported a first "descent profile", which describes the trajectory the probe took during its descent.

Detailed Huygens activity timeline

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Ellipse shows approximate landing site on this image taken earlier by Cassini. The bright region to the right is Xanadu Regio.
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First simulated colour image released from the landing site. (the color is inferred using spectral data taken by another instrument on DISR)
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Contrast-enhanced version of surface image
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Simulated 3D image of Titan. View with red/blue stereo glasses
  • Huygens probe separated from Cassini orbiter at 02:00 UTC on December 25, 2004 in SCET.
  • Huygens probe entered Titan's atmosphere at 10:13 UTC on January 14, 2005 in SCET, according to ESA.
  • The probe landed on the surface of the moon at ~163.1775 degrees east and ~10.2936 degrees south around 12:43 UTC in SCET (2 hours 30 minutes after atmospheric entry).

There was a transit of the Earth and Moon across the Sun as seen from Saturn/Titan just hours before the landing. The Huygens probe entered the upper layer of Titan's atmosphere 2.7 hours after the end of the transit of the Earth, or only one or two minutes after the end of the transit of the Moon. However, the transit did not interfere with Cassini orbiter or Huygens probe, for two reasons. First, although they could not receive any signal from us because we were in front of the Sun, we could still listen to them. Second, Huygens did not send any readable data to the Earth; it transmitted data to Cassini orbiter, which relayed the data received to the Earth later. For details about transits of the Earth as seen from Saturn, see also Transit of Earth from Saturn.

See also Detailed timeline of Huygens mission.


The Huygens probe had six complex instruments aboard that took in a wide range of scientific data after the probe descended into Titan's atmosphere. The six instruments are:

Huygens Atmospheric Structure Instrument (HASI)

This instrument contains a suite of sensors that measured the physical and electrical properties of Titan's atmosphere. Accelerometers measured forces in all three axes as the probe descended through the atmosphere. With the aerodynamic properties of the probe already known, it was possible to determine the density of Titan's atmosphere and to detect wind gusts. The probe was designed so that in the event of a landing on a liquid surface, its motion due to waves would also have been measurable. Temperature and pressure sensors measured the thermal properties of the atmosphere. The Permittivity and Electromagnetic Wave Analyzer component measured the electron and ion (i.e., positively charged particle) conductivities of the atmosphere and searched for electromagnetic wave activity. On the surface of Titan, the conductivity and permittivity (i.e., the ratio of electric flux density produced to the strength of the electric field producing the flux) of the surface material was measured. The HASI subsystem also contains a microphone, which was used to record any acoustic events during probe's descent and landing; this was only the second time in history that audible sounds from another planetary body had been recorded (a Venera-13 recording being the first).

Doppler Wind Experiment (DWE)

This experiment used an ultra-stable oscillator to improve communication with the probe by giving it a very stable carrier frequency. This instrument was also used to measure the wind speed in Titan's atmosphere by measuring the Doppler shift in the carrier signal. The swinging motion of the probe beneath its parachute due to atmospheric properties may also have been detected. Although the failure of one of Huygens's data channels resulted in this data being lost to Cassini, enough was picked up by Earth-based radio telescopes to reconstruct it. Measurements started 150 kilometres above Titan's surface, where Huygens was blown eastwards at more than 400 kilometres per hour, agreeing with earlier measurements of the winds at 200 kilometres altitude, made over the past few years using telescopes. Between 60 and 80 kilometres, Huygens was buffeted by rapidly fluctuating winds, which are thought to be vertical wind shear. At ground level, the Earth-based doppler shift and VLBI measurements show gentle winds of a few metres per second, roughly in line with expectations.

Descent Imager/Spectral Radiometer (DISR)

Missing image
Panaromic image created by artist and amateur astronomer Christian Waldvogel from raw images (released by ESA/NASA/U of Arizona) taken by the Huygens probe's DISR (Descent Imager/Spectral Radiometer) with a 660nm-1000nm filter.

This instrument made a range of imaging and spectral observations using several sensors and fields of view. By measuring the upward and downward flow of radiation, the radiation balance (or imbalance) of the thick Titan atmosphere was measured. Solar sensors measured the light intensity around the Sun due to scattering by aerosols in the atmosphere. This permitted calculation of the size and number density of the suspended particles. Two imagers (one visible, one infrared) observed the surface during the latter stages of the descent and, as the probe slowly spun, they built up a mosaic of pictures around the landing site. In addition, a side-view visible imager obtained a horizontal view of the horizon and of the underside of the cloud deck. For spectral measurements of the surface, a lamp was switched on shortly before landing to augment the weak sunlight.

Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer (GC/MS)

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A worker in the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF) stands behind the bottom side of the experiment platform for the Huygens probe.

This instrument is a versatile gas chemical analyzer that was designed to identify and measure chemicals in Titan's atmosphere. It was equipped with samplers that were filled at high altitude for analysis. The mass spectrometer built a model of the molecular masses of each gas, and a more powerful separation of molecular and isotopic species was accomplished by the gas chromatograph. During descent, the GCMS also analyzed pyrolysis products (i.e., samples altered by heating) passed to it from the Aerosol Collector Pyrolyser. Finally, the GCMS measured the composition of Titan's surface. This investigation was made possible by heating the GC/MS instrument just prior to impact in order to vaporize the surface material upon contact.

Aerosol Collector and Pyrolyser (ACP)

This experiment drew in aerosol particles from the atmosphere through filters, then heated the trapped samples in ovens (using the process of pyrolysis) to vaporize volatiles and decompose the complex organic materials. The products were flushed along a pipe to the GCMS instrument for analysis. Two filters were provided to collect samples at different altitudes.

Surface-Science Package (SSP)

The SSP contained a number of sensors designed to determine the physical properties of Titan's surface at the point of impact, whether the surface was solid or liquid. An acoustic sounder, activated during the last 100 meters of the descent, continuously determined the distance to the surface, measuring the rate of descent and the surface roughness (e.g., due to waves). The instrument was designed so that if the surface were liquid, the sounder would measure the speed of sound in the "ocean" and possibly also the subsurface structure (depth). During descent, measurements of the speed of sound gave information on atmospheric composition and temperature, and an accelerometer recorded the deceleration profile at impact, indicating the hardness and structure of the surface. A tilt sensor measured pendulum motion during the descent and was also designed to indicate the probe's attitude after landing and show any motion due to waves. If the surface had been liquid, other sensors would also have measured its density, temperature and light reflecting properties, thermal conductivity, heat capacity, and electrical permittivity.

Spacecraft design

Application of multi-layer insulation shimmers under bright lighting during final assembly. The gold color of the MLI is due to light reflecting off of the  coating on the back of sheets of amber colored .
Application of multi-layer insulation shimmers under bright lighting during final assembly. The gold color of the MLI is due to light reflecting off of the aluminium coating on the back of sheets of amber colored Kapton.


Martin-Baker Space Systems was responsible for Huygens' parachute systems and the structural components, mechanisms and pyrotechnics that control the probe's descent onto Titan. IRVIN-GQ was responsible for the definition of the structure of each of Huygens' parachutes. Irvin worked on the probe's descent control sub-system under contract to Martin-Baker Space Systems.

A critical design flaw resolved

Long after launch, a few persistent engineers discovered that the communication equipment on Cassini had a fatal design flaw, which would have caused the loss of all data transmitted by the Huygens probe.

As Huygens is too small to transmit directly to Earth, it is designed to transmit the telemetry data obtained while descending through Titan's atmosphere to Cassini by radio, which would in turn relay it to Earth using its large 4-meter diameter main antenna. Some engineers, most notably ESA Darmstadt employees Claudio Sollazzo and Boris Smeds, felt uneasy about the fact that, in their opinion, this feature had not been tested before launch under sufficiently realistic conditions. Smeds managed, with quite some difficulty, to convince superiors to perform additional tests while Cassini was in flight. In early 2000, he sent simulated telemetry data at varying power and Doppler shift levels from Earth to Cassini. It turned out that Cassini was unable to relay the data correctly.

The reason: When Huygens descends to Titan, it will accelerate relative to Cassini, causing its signal to be Doppler-shifted. Consequently, the hardware of Cassini's receiver was designed to be able to receive over a range of shifted frequencies. However, the firmware was not: The Doppler shift changes not only the carrier frequency but also the timing of the payload bits, coded by phase-shift keying at 8192 bits per second, and this, the programming of the module fails to take into account.

Reprogramming the firmware was impossible, and as a solution the trajectory had to be changed. Huygens detached a month later (December 2004 instead of November) and approached Titan in such a way that its transmissions travelled perpendicularly to its direction of motion relative to Cassini, greatly reducing the Doppler shift. (See IEEE Spectrum article ( for the full story.)

The trajectory change overcame the design flaw and data transmission succeeded, though the information from one of the two radio channels was lost due to an unrelated error.

"Channel A" data lost

Huygens was programmed to transmit telemetry and scientific data to the Cassini orbiter for relay to Earth using two redundant S-band radio systems, referred to as Channel A and B, or Chain A and B. Channel A was the sole path for an experiment to measure wind speeds by studying tiny frequency changes caused by Huygens' motion. In one other deliberate departure from full redundancy, pictures from the descent imager were split up, with each channel carrying 350 pictures.

As it turned out, Cassini never listened to channel A because of a software commanding error. The receiver on the orbiter was never commanded to turn on, according to officials with the European Space Agency. ESA announced that the program error was a mistake on their part, the missing command was part of a software program developed by ESA for the Huygens mission and that it was executed by Cassini as delivered.

The loss of Channel A means only 350 pictures were received instead of the 700 planned. Also all Doppler radio measurements between Cassini and Huygens were lost. Doppler radio measurements of Huygens from Earth were made, though not as accurate as expected measurement that Cassini would have made; when added to accelerometer sensors on Huygens and VLBI tracking of the position of the Huygens probe from Earth, reasonably accurate wind speed and direction measurements can still be derived.

See also

External links

da:Huygens rumsonde de:Cassini-Huygens eo:Sondilo Huygens es:Sonda Huygens he:הויגנס nl:Huygens (project) no:Huygens (romsonde) ru:Зонд_Гюйгенс sv:Huygens zh:惠更斯号 zh-min-nan:Huygens cheng-chhek-ki


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