End of the Cassini mission

October 15, 1997. Cassini made a beautiful and perfect launch. I had just met my wife-to-be. I had no kids of my own.

January 14, 2005: Cassini drops Huygens probe on Titan. One of my all-time favoritest moments:

September 15, 2017: Cassini’s fuel has finally run out. It will take an intentional dive into the atmosphere of Saturn. Taking pics and measurements along the way, it will very doubtfully reach anything resembling a surface. Instead it will burn up and disintegrate along the way, just barely scraping the highest of Saturn’s mostly Hydrogen, incredibly windy atmosphere. I just celebrated my 16th anniversary, my son is fourteen years old.

What a remarkable mission it’s been.

Turning the Switch on, update

A couple of weeks ago I was lamenting the apparent loss of information from the Huygens probe on Titan.  Well lo and behold, we get this today:

Radio Telescopes Salvage Titan Wind Data, Huygens Scientists Say

U.S. and European researchers are lauding the effectiveness of a network of ground-based telescopes that has apparently salvaged a wind experiment feared lost during a mission to the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan.

Astronomers were able to use a global group of radio telescopes and a simple signal tone bleated by Europe’s Huygens probe during its Jan. 14 Titan landing to determine the moon’s wind characteristics.

That is pretty dang cool.  I’d still like to see more pictures than what we apparently got.  Titan’s a pretty funky place apparently.

Turn the switch on

This is just precious:

Idaho Professor Laments Forgotten Titan Experiment

David Atkinson spent 18 years designing an experiment for the unmanned space mission to Saturn. Now some pieces of it are lost in space. Someone forgot to turn on the instrument Atkinson needed to measure the winds on Saturn’s largest moon.

“The story is actually fairly gruesome,” the University of Idaho scientist said in an e-mail from Germany, the headquarters of the European Space Agency. “It was human error – the command to turn the instrument on was forgotten.”

The probe was to transmit data on two channels, A and B, Atkinson said. His Doppler wind experiment was to use Channel A, a very stable frequency.

But the order to activate the receiver, or oscillator, for Channel A was never sent, so the entire mission operated through Channel B, which is less stable, Atkinson said……..

That’s right.  They forgot to turn it on.  In the eight years Huygens/Cassini was in route, no one made a checklist of what all needed to be done when it got there.  NASA is examining what went wrong.  I think it’s simple.  Find who was responsible for Channel A and fire them.

Wonder whatever happened to the guy who forgot to convert metric to feet on the lost Mars mission?

Visiting Titan

Richard Branson’s newest adventure is commercializing space travel.  Right on the heels of that breakthrough, we now have:

Scientists piecing together data from Europe’s Huygens probe to Saturn’s moon Titan described the hazy satellite today as an environment in which a frequent rain of liquid methane falls through a thick smog onto hills made of water ice.

Now, that sounds a LOT more exciting than Mars.  I mean, a trip to the Mojave Desert would be a lot more exciting.

Those really are rivers running into an “ocean”.  Sounding really cool so far.  But, there are obvious downsides:

  1. Little sunlight penetrates the dense hydrocarbon atmosphere. ( I really really like lots of sunshine ).
  2. Surface temperatures on Titan were measured at -290 degrees Fahrenheit. ( I really, really like lots of sunshine for that reason. )
  3. It had rained liquid methane recently before Huygens arrival. ( You can run a car on liquid methane. )

“We can now dream seriously of sending rovers to Titan,” said  Huygens project manager Jean-Pierre Lebreton of the European Space Agency (ESA). “All we need is the money.”

Did I mention Richard Branson?  Actually, I’ve got another idea.  Let’s put some loose ends together and this is what you get:

  1. The world is facing a renewable energy crisis before too long.

  2. NASA needs money to send rovers to Titan. ( See above )

  3. SpaceshipOne is wanting commercial business.

Put it all together, and you get this natural conclusion:

Sell the rights to methane on Titan to Branson/SpaceShipTwo, let them build freighters to bring it back and they can become filthy bazillionaires while the world weens itself of dependence on Earth’s limited resources.  I mean think about it in a realistic way, it’s raining gasoline on Titan.

Hey Volokh guys, do I have to patent that as a concept?

Editor’s Update, 5/16/2017:  More than a decade after writing this, nothing has landed on Titan.  For that matter, nothing substantial has landed anywhere in the solar system while we’ve talked ourselves to death about getting man to Mars even though at this point, we can’t even put a man in orbit.  We’re back to 1960 again realistically.

Sustainable Oil redux

A while back I did a piece on sustainable oil.  Apparently the topic is making the rounds.

Thomas Gold was not your typical radical. Far from being a mad scientist, he was a brilliant professor of astronomy at Cornell University, but he succeeded in driving many others mad with theories that flew in the face of conventional wisdom…..

Now, a couple of decades after Gold first suggested that hydrocarbons are formed deep underground by geological processes and not just below the surface by biological decay, there is increasing evidence that he may have been on to something.

…..Gold argued that all hydrocarbons are formed in the intense pressure and high heat near the Earth’s mantle, around 100 miles under the ground. If he was right, it means the finite limits of the resources that power our cities and our factories and our vehicles have been vastly overstated.

Here’s the “current event” part:

And the evidence so far suggests that methane, at least, can be produced independent of biological materials.

How’s this for a suggestion:

One photo released Tuesday showed a large body of liquid – possibly liquid methane – jutting into what appeared to be rough, frozen terrain, with the probe appearing to be just meters (yards) from the shoreline.

That article from space.com is talking about liquid methane on Titan, a moon of Saturn.  Needless to say, at this point, we are not aware of any biological materials on Titan.  Furthermore:

“If it’s not a sea, it appears to be a lake of tar-like material,” said John Zarnecky, principal investigator for the Huygens’ Surface Science Package, which is taking data from the surface of Titan.

On Titan, with no known biological material, there is tar and methane, the precursors to usable oil.

I think Gold may be on to something.

Exploring Titan

The image appears to show ravines that could have been carved by the liquid hydrocarbons thought to cover much of Titan’s surface. The ravines, stubby drainage-like channels, appeared to funnel toward what appeared to be a shoreline, researchers said during their initial reactions to the image. “If it’s not a sea, it appears to be a lake of tar-like material,” said John Zarnecky, principal investigator for the Huygens’ Surface Science Package, which is taking data from the surface of Titan.

This is very cool!

October 10, 2006 update: This isn’t new, but it’s still extremely cool. It’s a montage of pics from the Huygens’ landing to show what it would have looked like during the landing. Very cool. One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen from space!


Imagine yourself just floating around in your spaceship.  You’ve got nothing better to do than look at objects like this for hours at a time.   That sounds so good to me right now.

Titan is a beautiful object.  Although only a moon of Saturn, it has more features than most “planets”.  Although I’m not too excited about visiting Mars, I would like to have rovers land on places like Europa, Io, and Titan.  There’s probably no chance of life on any of them, but we knew that about the Moon, Mars, Venus, and everywhere else we’ve gone.  Let’s just do it for the kicks of seeing what the rest of the universe has to look at.  We might figure some important things out along the way.  That, and better pictures of Titan are more than worth the cost.

What is a Moon?

We now have the most impressive picture ever taken of Phobos, which circles Mars.

It’s a rock.  Nothing but a rock.  Granted it’s a big rock.  But, it’s still just a rock.  Is that a moon?  Is anything that orbits a planet truly a moon?  Is there some more definitive definition of a moon?  By the existing definition, Earth has probably 8,000 moons by now, with 7,999 being man-made objects.

That’s an asteroid called “Annefrank”.  It looks a lot like Phobos.  If “Annefrank” suddenly started circling a planet, it would no longer be an asteroid, it would be a moon.  So, you could come to the conclusion that moons are objects that serve no other purpose than to just circle a planet.  However:

That’s Titan, which circles Saturn.  It’s got color, it’s got an atmosphere, and taking a leap of faith, it could support life.

That’s the surface of Europa, which circles Jupiter.  That’s ice you see there, evidence of the basic element needed to support life.  Speculation is life might exist under the frozen shell.

And Io, which looks a lot like a planet.  Less likely to support life, but still has a lot of features a planet would.

What I’m leading to is physically the only difference in definition between a moon and a planet is what it orbits.  That worked fine 100 years ago, but in lieu of being able to actually visit these places, and becoming very familiar with the differences moons have, I would like to see a better definition of what constitutes moons and planets.  If there’s life out there, who cares what it orbits?  To me a moon is something not likely to support life, a planet should have some physical characteristics to define it could support life, such as an atmosphere.  Io and Europa are more of a planet than they are a moon.  Annefrank is as much a moon as Phobos is.  When someone says something is a moon, I’d like to have a clear visualization and expectation of what it is.  If they say something’s a planet, I’d like to know I could get excited about it.

Just another useless rant from Moon, who has a lot of atmosphere.