We have reached another milepost in our travels around Saturn and a moment to commemorate and reflect on the astonishing events that unfolded ten years ago today: the landing of the Huygens probe on the equatorial plains of Saturn's largest, haze-enshrouded moon, Titan.
The anticipation of the arrival of Huygens at Titan was tremendous. Even six months after insertion into Saturn orbit, we still had only vague impressions of what the surface might be like, and the liquid hydrocarbons we were confident had to be there were not evident. My own words, recorded in a Captain's Log on this website on January 11, 2005, bespoke the suspense:
"We are about to enter a cold and misty wilderness, never before touched by anything human. This will be a tale to tell, of exploration, discovery and intrigue, not unlike those told by Jules Verne a century and a half ago. Only this time, it will be real.
We are capable of extraordinary achievements, and this will surely be one of them.
Ladies and gentlemen ... prepare to make contact."
And I will never forget the night that we did. Stationed at the European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany, along with many others, I was there to witness for myself the early reports of Huygens' landfall. We had safely guided our craft through the murk and onto the surface, and it was joyous.
The images taken by the falling probe and released to the public that night were everything our images from orbit were not: unfiltered, exquisitely detailed views of the moon's surface and unambiguous in their account. They told of a bright region, bounded by what looked for all the world like a shoreline, and etched by a dendritic drainage system that could only have been made by a liquid draining through narrow channels, across that shoreline, and onto the dark, formless plain next door. It was circumstantial but incontrovertible evidence for the liquid hydrocarbons that we had strained from orbit to find and thrilling beyond measure. It was soon to be followed, after landing, by another unforgettable sight, under a cloudy sky and across a cobble-strewn ground to the moon's horizon in the distance.
Was I really living through all this? I distinctly recall the dreamy feeling of being in one universe one moment and in another universe the next. But it was no dream. We had, without doubt, journeyed to Titan, ten times farther from the Sun than the Earth, and touched it. The solar system suddenly seemed a very much smaller place.
There will be more of Titan in the upcoming three remaining years of Cassini's travels. But on this day as we commemorate that magic moment when we landed on a moon of Saturn, we remember also the many wondrous things we have found there in the succeeding ten years, and thank the great singularity in the sky that we lived to see it all happen.
Carolyn Porco Cassini Imaging Team Leader Director, CICLOPS Boulder, CO