Eight years ago today, ESA’s Huygens bounced, slid and wobbled its way to rest on the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan, the first time a probe had touched down on an alien world in the outer Solar System.
The animation was created using real data recorded by Huygen’s instruments, allowing us to witness this historical moment as if we had been there.
The animation takes into account Titan’s atmospheric conditions, including the Sun and wind direction, the behaviour of the parachute (with some artistic interpretation only on the movement of the ropes after touchdown), and the dynamics of the landing itself.
Even the stones immediately facing Huygens were rendered to match the photograph of the landing site returned from the probe, which is revealed at the end of the animation.
Split into four sequences, the animation first shows a wide-angle view of the descent and landing followed by two close-ups of the touchdown from different angles, and finally a simulated view from Huygens itself – the true Huygens experience.
New results published last year revealed that on first contact with Titan’s surface, Huygens dug a hole 12 cm deep, before bouncing out and sliding 30–40 cm across a flat surface.
The probe then wobbled back and forth five times until coming to a standstill about 10 seconds after touchdown – this is best seen in the final two sequences.
A ‘fluffy’ dust-like material – most likely organic aerosols that are known to drizzle out of the Titan atmosphere – was thrown up and suspended for around four seconds around the probe following the impact. The dust was easily lifted, suggesting it was most likely dry and that there had not been any ‘rain’ of liquid ethane or methane for some time prior to the landing.
Huygens was released from the international Cassini spacecraft on Christmas Day 2004, arriving at Titan three weeks later. Cassini has been in orbit around Saturn since July 2004, and will continue operations until 2017.
The Cassini–Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA and ASI, the Italian space agency. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington.