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World: U.S.-European Mission To Solve Mystery Of Saturn's Enigmatic Moon

A U.S.-European spacecraft is preparing to explore the planet Saturn's huge moon, Titan. The "Cassini-Huygens" spacecraft that has orbited the ringed planet since July is to venture within 1,200 kilometers of the cloud-covered moon on 26 October. The fly-by is to be the first of as many as 45 close encounters with Titan over the next four years. The space probe is scheduled to land a capsule on Titan's surface in January. The impending pass will examine the moon's surface, including the target area. RFE/RL reports that scientists think there could be liquid hydrocarbon lakes on the moon's surface, similar to those that would have been a prerequisite for life on Earth.

London, 22 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The space probe is expected to help lift a veil of mystery that has shrouded Titan.

Professor Carl Murray is a lecturer at Queens College at the University of London and is a member of the international Cassini imaging team.

"Just after we went into orbit around Saturn, we got to within 300,000 kilometers of Titan, and we got some amazing images then. And other remote sensing instruments sent back data, as well. We're still trying to understand those images, but on 26 October we're getting within 2,000 kilometers of Titan, and we will be able to view the landing site that the 'Huygens' probe is going to land on," Murray said.
"What I would most like to see would be what does the surface of Titan -- that has been completely hidden for so long -- look like. That would just be amazing."

Other project scientists share the enthusiasm. Stan Cawley is a professor at the University of Leicester and a member of the "Cassini" magnetic field investigation team.

"The pictures that have been taken so far are only really a taster of what's to come. They were taken from a large distance in July, but on 26 October we will really see what is going on on Titan," Cawley said.

Carl Murray, the discoverer of a small moon in Saturn's rings last summer, says Titan has been an enigma. It is the second-largest moon in the solar system after Jupiter's Ganymede, and is only slightly smaller than the planet Mars. Titan has a thick, clouded atmosphere. It is some 1,200 million kilometers from Earth, so its surface has been barely glimpsed so far. He says speculation continues about possible lakes of a "primordial organic soup of hydrocarbons," similar to that from which life on Earth could have evolved.

Space scientists launched the "Cassini-Huygens" spacecraft from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida seven years ago. There are two elements. The "Cassini" orbiter is passing around Saturn and its moons. The "Huygens" probe is to dive into Titan's atmosphere and land on its surface.

"Cassini-Huygens" is an international collaboration among three space agencies. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory built the "Cassini" orbiter. The European Space Agency built the "Huygens" probe. The Italian Space Agency provided "Cassini's" communication antenna.

Murray says that scientists are eager to see how measurements from both parts of the spacecraft complement each other.

"With our cameras, we can see through the haze layer, and we can actually see the surface. So the resolution will be really remarkable. And the main thing is we can tie up what 'Cassini' is seeing and detecting as it passes by with what 'Huygens' will be seeing and detecting as it goes through the atmosphere," Murray said.

Murray says "Cassini" should continue to investigate Saturn's system even after the "Huygens" probe has landed in January. He predicts more discoveries as the spacecraft's changing orbit takes it past most of the planet's moons.

"Cassini" is expected to make 74 orbits around Saturn, passing by Titan 45 times. Thus, he says, "there will be plenty of opportunities for further observation." Murray says he is most excited about seeing the surface of Titan.

"What I would most like to see would be what does the surface of Titan -- that has been completely hidden for so long -- look like. That would just be amazing," Murray said.

Space scientists consider Saturn a fascinating study. It formed 4 billion years ago. It has a stormy atmosphere, with winds clocked at 1,800 kilometers per hour near its equator.