Huygens probe

Huygens probe

Name = Huygens probe

Caption = A scale replica of the probe, 1.3 metres across.
Organization = ESA/ASI/NASA
Major_Contractors = Aérospatiale, now Thales Alenia Space
Mission_Type = Lander
Satellite_Of = Saturn
Launch = December 25 2004
Launch_Vehicle = Cassini orbiter
Decay =
Mission_Duration =
Mass = 319 kg
NSSDC_ID = 1997-061C
Webpage = [ Huygens Homepage]
Semimajor_Axis =
Eccentricity =
Inclination =
Orbital_Period =
Apoapsis =
Periapsis =
Orbits =
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 touched down on land, although the possibility that it would touch down in an ocean was also taken into account in its design. Even though it was never officially designated a lander, 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.

Based on pictures taken by "Cassini" at 1,200 km 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-made 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 318 kg probe itself, which descended to Titan, and the probe support equipment (PSE), which remained attached to the orbiting spacecraft. "Huygens"' heat shield was 2.7 m in diameter; after ejecting the shield, the probe was 1.3 m in diameter. 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"' 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 in North America, 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 Jupiter 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 was finished being relayed from "Cassini" to Earth, the recorded signal was processed against a telemetry template, enabling signal integration over several seconds for determining the probe frequency. It was expected that through analysis of the Doppler shifting of "Huygens"' signal as it descended through the atmosphere of Titan, wind speed and direction could be determined with some degree of accuracy. Through interferometry, it was also expected that the radio telescopes would allow determination of "Huygens"' landing site on Titan with exquisite precision, measuring its position to within 1 km at a distance from Earth of about 1200 million kilometres. 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.


Preliminary findings seemed to confirm the presence of large bodies of liquid on the surface of Titan. The photos showed what appear to be large drainage channels crossing the lighter colored mainland into a dark sea. Some of the photos even seem to suggest islands and mist shrouded coastline. 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 scientists also reported a first "descent profile", which describes the trajectory the probe took during its descent.

However, further work done on the probe's trajectory indicate that in fact it landed within the dark 'sea' region in the photos. Photos of a dry landscape from the surface contradict the original theory that the dark regions were liquid seas, leading researchers to conclude that while there was evidence of liquid acting on the surface recently, the much anticipated hydrocarbon seas of Titan were in fact absent.

At the landing site there were 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 from the surface". The surface itself was reported to be a 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 Crème brûlée, but admitted this term probably would not appear in the published papers.

However, subsequent analysis of the data suggests that surface consistency readings were likely caused by "Huygens" displacing a large pebble as it landed, and that the surface is better described as a 'sand' made of ice grains. [ [ Titan probe's pebble 'bash-down'] , BBC News, 10 April 2005.] The images taken after the probe's landing show a flat plain covered in pebbles. The pebbles, which may be made of water ice, are somewhat rounded, which may indicate the action of fluids on them. [ [ New Images from the Huygens Probe: Shorelines and Channels, But an Apparently Dry Surface] , Emily Lakdawalla, 2005-01-15, verified 2005-03-28]

Detailed "Huygens" activity timeline

* "Huygens" probe separated from "Cassini" orbiter at 02:00 UTC on December 25, 2004 in Spacecraft Event Time.
* "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).(1.)

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 Earth because it was in front of the Sun, Earth 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 displacement field to its electric field) 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; [cite journal | author= M. Fulchignoni, F. Ferri, F. Angrilli, A. Bar-Nun, M.A. Barucci, G. Bianchini, W. Borucki, M. Coradini, A. Coustenis, P. Falkner, E. Flamini, R. Grard, M. Hamelin, A.M. Harri, G.W. Leppelmeier, J.J. Lopez-Moreno, J.A.M. McDonnell, C.P. McKay, F.H. Neubauer, A. Pedersen, G. Picardi, V. Pirronello, R. Rodrigo, K. Schwingenschuh, A. Seiff, H. Svedhem, V. Vanzani and J. Zarnecki | title= The Characterisation of Titan's Atmospheric Physical Properties by the Huygens Atmospheric Structure Instrument (Hasi) | journal=Space Science Review| year=2002 | volume=104 | pages=395–431 |doi=10.1023/A:1023688607077] this was the first time in history that audible sounds from another planetary body had been recorded.

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"' 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)

As Huygens was primarily an atmospheric mission, the DISR instrument was optimized to study the radiation balance inside Titan's atmosphere. Its visible and infrared spectrometers and violet photometers measured the up- and downward radiant flux from an altitude of 145 kilometers down to the surface. Solar aureole cameras measured how scattering by aerosols varies the intensity directly around the Sun. Three imagers, sharing the same CCD, periodically imaged a swath of around 30 degrees wide, ranging from almost nadir to just above the horizon. Aided by the slowly spinning probe they would built up a full mosaic of the landing site, which, surprisingly, became clearly visible only below 25 kilometer altitude. All measurements were timed by aid of a shadow bar, which would tell DISR when the Sun had passed through the field of view. Unfortunately, this scheme was upset by the fact that Huygens rotated in a direction opposite to that expected. Just before landing a lamp was switched on to illuminate the surface, which enabled measurements of the surface reflectance at wavelengths which are completely blocked out by atmospheric methane absorption.

DISR was developed at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona under the direction of Martin Tomasko, with several European institutes contributing to the hardware.

Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer (GC/MS)

This instrument is a versatile gas chemical analyzer that was designed to identify and measure chemicals in Titan's atmosphere. [cite journal | author= Niemann HB, Atreya SK, Bauer SJ, Biemann K, Block, Carigan GR, Donahue TM, Frost RL Gautier D, Habermann JA, Harpold D, Hunten DM, Israel G, Lunine JI, Mauersberger K, Owen TC, Fraulin, Richards JE, Way, SH| title= The Gaschromatograph Mass Spectrometer for the Huygens Probe| journal=Space Science Review| year=2002 | volume=104 | pages=533–591|doi=10.1023/A:1023680305259] It was equipped with samplers that were filled at high altitude for analysis. The mass spectrometer, a high-voltage quadrupole, collected data to build 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. [cite journal | title= The abundances of constituents of Titan’s atmosphere from the GCMS instrument on the Huygens probe |author= H. B. Niemann, S. K. Atreya, S. J. Bauer, G. R. Carignan, J. E. Demick, R. L. Frost, D. Gautier, J. A. Haberman, D. N. Harpold, D. M. Hunten, G. Israel, J. I. Lunine, W. T. Kasprzak, T. C. Owen, M. Paulkovich, F. Raulin, E. Raaen, S. H. Way |journal= "Nature" |volume=438 |pages=77–9–784 |year=2005 |doi=10.1038/nature04122 ] During descent, the GC/MS also analyzed pyrolysis products (i.e., samples altered by heating) passed to it from the Aerosol Collector Pyrolyser. Finally, the GC/MS 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. The GC/MS was developed by the Goddard Space Flight Center and University of Michigan's Space Physics Research Lab.

Aerosol Collector and Pyrolyser (ACP)

The ACP 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 GC/MS instrument for analysis. Two filters were provided to collect samples at different altitudes. [cite journal | author= Israel G, Cabane M, Brun J-F, Niemann H, Way S, Riedler W, Steller M, Raulin F, Cosica D | title= Huygens Probe Aerosol Collector Pyrolyser Experiment | journal=Space Science Review| year=2002 | volume=104 | pages=433–468|doi=10.1023/A:1023640723915] The ACP was developed by a (French) ESA team at the Laboratoire Inter-Universitaire des Systèmes Atmosphériques (LISA).

urface-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 properties (permittivity and conductivity). A penetrometer instrument, that protruded 55 mm past the bottom of the "Huygens" probe descent module, was used to create a penetrometer trace as "Huygens" landed on the surface by measuring the force exerted on the instrument by the surface as the instrument broke though the surface and was pushed down into the planet by the force of the probe landing itself. The trace shows this force as a function of time over a period of about 400 ms. The trace has an initial spike which suggests that the instrument hit one of the icy pebbles on the surface photographed by the DISR camera.

The "Huygens" SSP was developed by Space Sciences Department of the University of Kent and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory Space Science Department under the direction of Professor John Zarnecki. The SSP research and responsibility transferred to the Open University when John Zarnecki transferred in 2000.

pacecraft design

"Huygens" was built under the Prime Contractorship of Aérospatiale in its Cannes Mandelieu Space Center, France, now part of Thales Alenia Space. The heat shield system was built under the responsibility of Aérospatiale near Bordeaux, now part of EADS SPACE Transportation.


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 potentially fatal design flaw, which would have caused the loss of all data transmitted by the "Huygens" probe.

As "Huygens" was too small to transmit directly to Earth, it was 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 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: under the original flight plan, when "Huygens" was to descend to Titan, it would have accelerated 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 failed to take into account that the Doppler shift would have changed not only the carrier frequency, but also the timing of the payload bits, coded by phase-shift keying at 8192 bits per second.

Reprogramming the firmware was impossible, and as a solution the trajectory had to be changed. "Huygens" detached a month later than originally planned (December 2004 instead of November) and approached Titan in such a way that its transmissions traveled perpendicular to its direction of motion relative to "Cassini", greatly reducing the Doppler shift. [cite news| title=Titan Calling| first= James| last= Oberg | publisher=IEEE Spectrum| url=| date=October 4, 2004 (offline as of 2006-10-14, see [ Internet Archive version] )]

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

The trajectory change was not the only mitigation to the Doppler shift problem, and software patches were uplinked to several instruments on the probe from the Deutsche Aerospace facility in Darmstadt to further reduce the risk of data loss.

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"'s 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 an operational 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.

Amateur contributions

The "Huygens" mission benefited significantly from amateur contributions. This was enabled by the decision of the imaging science Principal Investigator Marty Tomasko to make the image raw data of the DISR instrument available to the public. The many small and low contrast images had to be assembled into mosaics and panoramas of the landing region in a time consuming process, and space science enthusiasts all around the world began to deal with this challenge. Only some hours later the first mosaics of the "Huygens" landing region were published, [ [ » Main » Huygens ] ] created by Daniel Crotty, Jakub Friedl, Ricardo Nuñes and Anthony Liekens.
Christian Waldvogel published an improved and colorized Panorama. Another amateur, René Pascal, intensively engaged in the "Huygens" image processing, developed a method to remove camera artifacts from the images and created a comprehensive mosaic of the region now called Adiri. [ [ Huygens Panoramic Views and Mosaic Images of Titan ] ]

See also

* "Cassini-Huygens"
* "Cassini-Huygens" timeline
* Europlanet



*en Guy Lebègue, (trad. Robert J. Amral), « Huygens Space probe: A Seven-Year journey! », in "Revue aerospatiale", n°76, March 1991.

External links

* [ Huygens probe lands on Titan: a scientific leap for mankind]
* [ Amateur compositions of images, preceding NASA and ESA releases]
* [ European Space Agency Cassini-Huygens website] , including [ videos of the descent]
* [ ESA Huygens scientific information]
* [ Interactive Flash-Animation of Cassini orbits through 2008]
* [ Latest News on the Huygens Probe]
* [ NASA's Cassini-Huygens page]
* [ New Scientist — Cassini-Huygens: Mission to Saturn]
* [ Planetary Society's Saturn coverage]
* [ Raw images from descent]
* [ Surface Mosaics and extensive Image Processing by an Amateur]
* [ The Huygens Probe: Science, Payload and Mission Overview]
* [ Exploratorium webcasts about Saturn and Titan]
* [ ESA Bulletine on Huygens]
* [ Engineering the parachute and computer systems on the Huygens probe]

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