DARMSTADT, Germany — A European probe sent back unprecedented views of what appeared to be drainage channels and a black-and-white "shoreline" as it descended Friday to a successful landing on Titan, Saturn's haze-shrouded moon.
Another image, taken from the surface, showed roundish blocks of ice embedded in material that stretched out to Titan's horizon.
The first pictures from the Huygens lander drew outpourings of praise in several languages as they were displayed on video screens at the European Space Agency's mission control in Darmstadt. Still more images were being processed for later release.
"This really was a world that yielded totally new science," said ESA science director David Southwood.
“Clearly there is liquid matter flowing on the surface of Titan,” said scientist Marty Tomasko of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, which made the probe’s camera.
He said the liquid appeared to be flowing into a dark area at the right side of the image.
“It almost looks like a river delta,” he said. “It could be liquid methane, or hydrocarbons that settled out of the haze” that envelops Titan.
A third image taken at the surface showed several large white chunks — boulders or blocks of water ice — in the foreground and a stretch of gray surface behind them.
“There aren’t too many planets with liquid,” Tomasko said. “There’s Earth, and now there’s Titan.”
The pictures represented only the initial payoff toward the end of a long, successful day.
"We are the first visitors of Titan," ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain declared.
The parachute-equipped lander flashed a beacon signal back to Earth during its two-hour-plus descent through Titan's hazy atmosphere, and continued transmitting for more than two hours after its touchdown at about 7:47 a.m. ET (1247 GMT), mission analyst Michael Khan told MSNBC.com.
The probe's beacon was detected by the Green Bank radio telescope in West Virginia, then picked up again by the Parkes radio telescope in Australia as the world turned. The carrier signal even provided the Huygens mission's first scientific readings, for an experiment to measure the strength of Titan's winds.
The Huygens team marveled over the probe's longevity. "It's amazing," Khan said.
Getting the science
But the team had to wait a few more hours to get the bulk of the scientific data. Readings from the instruments on Huygens were sent to its mother ship, the international Cassini orbiter, then relayed to Earth. Mission controllers whooped and applauded as they received the first relayed readings.
“Now the scientists start work,” Southwood told reporters. “The torch has been passed to the scientists. We’re going to be working very hard in the next hours and days. But in fact, this data is data for posterity. This is a historic event. I don’t think it’s likely in the lifetime of anyone in this room that we will repeat a landing on Titan.”
Alphonso Diaz, NASA's associate administrator for science, seemed to come close to breaking into tears as he congratulated his European colleagues.
"There will only be one first successful landing on Titan, and this was it," he said.
A 7-year wait
Mission officials had waited seven years for Huygens to reach its destination. The 9-foot-wide (2.7-meter-wide) probe was spun off from Cassini on Christmas Eve to begin the free-fall toward Titan, the first moon other than the Earth’s to be explored by spacecraft.
Named after Titan’s discoverer, the 17th-century Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens, the probe carried instruments to explore what Titan’s atmosphere is made of and find out whether it had cold seas of liquid methane and ethane, as scientists suspected.
Timers inside the 705-pound (320-kilogram) probe awakened it just before it entered Titan’s atmosphere. Huygens is shaped like a wok and was covered with a heat shield to survive the intense heat of entry.
During its slow parachute descent, Huygens used a special camera and instruments to collect information on wind speeds and the makeup of Titan’s atmosphere. The readings were transmitted to Cassini first, on two almost fully redundant channels. Then Cassini turned its antenna toward Earth and passed the data along to NASA's Deep Space Network for delivery to ESA scientists in Darmstadt.
The readings were received clearly on one channel, but telemetry from the other channel contained no data, mission controllers said. The Huygens team was scrambling to get more radio telescope time for bonus observations.
'Titan is a time machine'
Titan is the only moon in the solar system known to have a significant atmosphere. Rich in nitrogen and containing about 6 percent methane, its atmosphere is believed to be 50 percent denser than Earth’s.
Slideshow: Best of Cassini NASA's Diaz said Titan may offer hints about the conditions under which life first arose on Earth.
“Titan is a time machine,” Diaz said. “It will provide us the opportunity to look at conditions that may well have existed on earth in the beginning. It may have preserved in a deep freeze many chemical compounds that set the stage for life on earth.”
Part of a $3.3 billion international mission to study the Saturn system, Huygens was equipped with instruments to study Titan’s smoggy atmosphere as well as the surface.
“It could land on something solid ... it could land in liquid methane, which is what they think a lot of the black seas on Titan are,” said Alan Smith, deputy head of operations at ESA. “Because the temperature is so cold and the pressure is so high, gases like ethane and methane exist in liquid form, so it could well land in a sea of methane.”
The probe was designed to keep working after touchdown despite the temperature of 292 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (-180 degrees Celsius). But even if everything aboard Huygens kept working perfectly, the probe would die when its batteries ran out.
The Cassini-Huygens mission, a project of NASA, ESA and the Italian space agency, was launched on Oct. 15, 1997, from Cape Canaveral, Fla., to study Saturn, its spectacular rings and many moons. During the nearly seven years Cassini took to reach the ringed planet, the attached probe was powered through an umbilical cable and awakened from sleep mode every six months for tests.
This report includes information from The Associated Press and MSNBC.com's Alan Boyle.
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