Titan-ic pictures
January 17, 2005 11:24 AM   Subscribe

NASA has released some pictures from another moon The article has some pictures - almost actual and computer-enhanced of Titan. There are also links to the radar signals Huygens received in its descent to Titan and Cassini sent back to NASA. (They sound a bit like a Vespa buzzing past a window.)
posted by Cranberry (28 comments total)
I know it just looks like rocks and soil, but I'm pretty excited, too.
posted by effwerd at 12:01 PM on January 17, 2005

Yeah, but look at the rocks: they're round and smooth. That means erosion, and that means liquid. Kind of neat. Also, the probe sunk a rod into the ground on impact: consistancy of wet sand.
posted by absalom at 12:07 PM on January 17, 2005

this is COOL!
posted by Al_Truist at 12:24 PM on January 17, 2005

Man, I'm getting the same wonderful, awestruck chills as I got seeing the first color images from Mars a few years back. I mean...this is ANOTHER PLANET (or MOON, in this case), man! Thousands of miles away, with NOTHING in between. And we set out to send a probe there, and we SENT A PROBE there!

Say what you will about our politics, religion, ability to have meaningful communications with others, or whatever, but I think humans are awesome.
posted by Fontbone at 12:31 PM on January 17, 2005

Fontbone: yeah as a species we rox, taken individually we suck unless otherwise proven. It surely seems absurd that we are capable of doing that yet we can't make a tsunami warning network that costs a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a mission like that and is also many times easier to organize.

I'm pretty sure the guys and girls at ESA and NASA would like some money to be used in such a network and in other technological humanitarian ventures.

About the sound: did anybody notice a repetitive pattern in Titan sound ? Under the noise there's definitely something that (seems like) a noise pattern..but I can't tell what it is or why it's in the sound. Any idea ?
posted by elpapacito at 12:39 PM on January 17, 2005

NASA didn't release these pictures. ESA did.
posted by salmacis at 12:41 PM on January 17, 2005

What really amazes me about these things is that there is never a possibility for a trial run and with so many unknowns... I know I've never put together something mechanical and complex and had it work the first time.

Also this is the effort of so many specialists working together, each understanding an essential piece of the whole. Its a great collaboration. Amazing, totally amazing.
posted by vacapinta at 12:41 PM on January 17, 2005

Sitting and listening to radar reflections dubbed acoustically seems geeky, but it pretty much made my whole day. The fact the probe was in space for 6 years is pretty fantastic too. Seems that the space industry on both sides of the Atlantic have gotten some of their act together (with non-human missions at least). The Mars Rovers were only supposed to last 90 days, and they're still rolling. This probe was only supposed to transmit for 3 mins or so from the surface, and they got over 90.

Pretty much speechless beyond that. Yay moon rocks!
posted by Spacey at 1:15 PM on January 17, 2005

man, nasa frigging rocks!
posted by muppetboy at 1:39 PM on January 17, 2005

So so cool.

But absalom, I have to point out that erosion can just as easily be caused by wind as by liquid.
posted by emyd at 1:55 PM on January 17, 2005

And, just because the soil is moist and clay-like doesn't mean much. At -180 degrees C, you can bet it's not water keeping the soil that consistency.

Nonetheless, very exciting.
posted by effwerd at 2:11 PM on January 17, 2005

Its not water, its liquid hydrocarbons.... and the rocks aren't rocks--they are more like pebbles. Everyone should check out the open source image processing that has been done.
I guess ESA allowed the raw data to be downloaded and processed by anyone who wanted to. Some of these "amateur" images are better than the real thing.
posted by spaceviking at 2:20 PM on January 17, 2005

Am I the only one who's disappointed that they didn't put a friggin 1 megapixel camera on this thing? Why such crappy photos? Why no panoramas? Why no sound files from the surface? I'm annoyed. For the ~3 billion dollars that Huygens cost (the EU), you would have thought they could have sent back something better. Thats not to mention that they actually stopped listening to Huygens even when it was still transmitting data. Ugh. All that time, and all that money...
posted by slacy at 2:25 PM on January 17, 2005

I mean...this is ANOTHER PLANET (or MOON, in this case), man! Thousands of miles away, with NOTHING in between.

I'm sure it was in your excitement that you misspoke, Fontbone, but I need to correct you so that we can all be in proper awe of how cool this is. London and New York are thousands of miles apart. Mars is millions of miles away. But Titan is more than 2.2 billion miles away. (~3.5 x 10^9 km for our new European spaceprobe overlords)
posted by Plutor at 2:27 PM on January 17, 2005

Am I the only one who's disappointed that they didn't put a friggin 1 megapixel camera on this thing?

I'm not sure if you're the only one slacy, but I'm definitely NOT dissapointed at this amazing acheivement. As for the 1 megapixel camera, I'm not 100% sure why they didn't include it but my guess would be power and climate constraints could be the answer. Remember, this probe has been in outter space for over 7 years and had to endure the rapidly decreasing temperatures as it moved away from the sun. I'm sure even a 1x megapixel camera would have required to much extra baggage in terms of power supply to risk carrying on the journey. 2.2 billion miles is a long way... it takes the signals ~1 hr traveling at the speed of light to and from the probe. So my guess is that you would want to have lower quality images and audio because of the extra money and power necessary to transmit them. The highest priority should be sending and receiving scientific data not sending back cool images.
posted by yossarian1 at 2:51 PM on January 17, 2005

Am I the only one who's disappointed that they didn't put a friggin 1 megapixel camera on this thing? Why such crappy photos? Why no panoramas? Why no sound files from the surface? I'm annoyed

I am positive that a dual camera system that can travel for 7 years, maximize available light while also maximizing resolution (thus two cameras), record outside visible light in infrared and ultraviolet, be prepared to take up to 500,000 pictures, with 63 exposure settings, 12 custom filters, can do custom lens-cleaning, play nice with all the other important instruments on the spacecraft and take pictures in temperatures below negative 180...

is a camera you cannot afford.

The science data from this mission is far more than a couple pretty pictures. They just put those up to try to appease the under-educated public - though in this case it still is apparently not enough.
posted by vacapinta at 3:02 PM on January 17, 2005

The craft has also been zipping around space for the past 6 or 7 years. Six years ago a 1 megapixel sensor wasn't so bad. Take it back however long to when they started designing it and 1 megapixel was probably decent.
posted by substrate at 3:02 PM on January 17, 2005

I still don't understand why a bajillion dollar probe can't take a better picture than a $3 disposable camera.
posted by wfrgms at 3:24 PM on January 17, 2005

From what I recall, the probe was designed in the mid 80s, built in the 90s and had to travel through space and take photos reliably in light levels drastically below those on Earth, in a dense atmosphere. That's right - the mid 80s. Try finding any cheap 1MP digicams back then. Because obviously the guys at ESA didn't *want* good photos, they just decided to put a shitty camera in for the hell of it.


I for one am hugely impressed by the pictures and am a bit sick of hearing all this hating going on Huygens. We've all been spoiled by the Mars rovers.
posted by adrianhon at 3:27 PM on January 17, 2005

Why such crappy photos?
slacy, maybe because those data must have first gone from tiny Huygens on Titan's icy surface through its turbulent atmosphere to Cassini and then retransmitted a long, long way (much farther than Mars) from Cassini to Earth. It's a very tenuous connection you got there and bandwidth is very definitely at a premium. So, I'm sure they could have put more spectacular sensors on Huygens, but getting the information gathered by them to Earth would have been the trouble.
Why no sound files from the surface?
Actually, there was one such sound file available yesterday on ESA's "Sounds of Titan" page. It's gone today, presumably because it was extremely underwhelming, only silence and static.
Thats not to mention that they actually stopped listening to Huygens even when it was still transmitting data.
As I mention before, the data from Huygens had to be relayed through Cassini to be able to reach Earth. Cassini had to listen to Huygens until its memory buffers were full, then redirect itself towards Earth and regurgitate those data. Huygens did perform so well that it was still transmitting after five hours when it was expected to hardly last two. So, Cassini had to bid it goodbye because it just couldn't take any more data. As simple as that.
posted by Skeptic at 3:40 PM on January 17, 2005

Plutor: I'm sure it was in your excitement that you misspoke, Fontbone...

Er, yeah. When I get excited I tend to, uh, underexaggerate by a factor of lots, apparently. ;)

I knew it was at least millions of miles away, thought around a billion, but didn't know that it was over 2 billion and hadn't bothered to find out how much I was off by. Thanks for the accurate figures!
posted by Fontbone at 5:30 PM on January 17, 2005

Okay, here's my short rebuttal, in rhetorical question form:

Why didn't they design Huygens to return pictures of better quality to those returned by the Venera 9 and 10 landers that landed on Venus in 1975?

Secondly, I think that a higher resolution camera would actually provide as much scientific data as "eye candy". (The Cassini mission itself is pure proof of this -- beautiful pictures and great science all in one package. I was expecting the same from Huygens.)

Remember that one of the main goals of NASA (since its inception) was to inspire children to take up scientific careers. I think its a great achievement to land on Titan, but I think that the scope of it has been lost to the lay person because of the poor quality images that were returned.
posted by slacy at 5:44 PM on January 17, 2005

"the data from Huygens had to be relayed through Cassini to be able to reach Earth. Cassini had to listen to Huygens until its memory buffers were full"...

which, as Skeptic rightly points out was a serious limitation. If the data capacity of Cassini was that limited, you have to believe a group of scientists are going to be more interested in harvesting critical data than they are pretty pictures.
posted by j.p. Hung at 6:23 PM on January 17, 2005

Interesting question. I went to this other website in which one can find info
about Venera missions.

Panoramic imaging system (telephotometer), consisting of two photographic scanning devices with nodding mirrors. They were located in gondolas, about 90 centimeters above the base of the lander. The camera was capable of providing an image with the resolution of about 70,000 pixels, consisting of 500 vertical lines with 128 pixels each.

500linesx128pix = 64K Pixels on Venera

On this Esa page we can read more of Huygens specifications, among which we read that the highest spatial resolution for the imaging system is 176x256=45K pixel

So Venera has 64K at 500x128 and Huygen has 45K at 176x256.

Now the mere #pix 2 #pix comparison is insignificant..one could (in theory) have 100000x10pix = 1MPix transmitted from some sat and the image would suck a lot more then Venera or Huygens, as the image spatial resolution is more important then the mere number of pixel transmitted.

It seems to me that the Huygens instrument (as we can read from the above Esa page) is a vastly more flexible instrument, even if the number of pixel per frame sent is actually lower then Venera. Now that still doesn't prove much does it, except that Huygens camera is worse in the visible range then Venera.

Venera's lander mass is about 600Kg ..Huygens is about 350Kg (from Wikipedia)...and we must fit a lot of stuff in that 350Kg and ship it 2 Billion kilometers away...I'm stopping here (lack of time) but I guess there is some very good reason for Huygens relatively low spatial resolution and lack of "eye candyness". I agree that eye candy can play an important role in keeping youngers and even adult interested in space..which is important..but that doesn't necessarily reflect in a larger budget or more political support for space missions.
posted by elpapacito at 6:59 PM on January 17, 2005

how much light is actually on this moon? How could this not be an unimaginably dark place?
posted by ParisParamus at 7:20 PM on January 17, 2005

Skeptic, you're wrong. Cassini was listening to Huygens until it went out of radio contact. Line of site, orbital mechanics and all that.

You've all got to remember that Huygens was designed as an atmospheric probe. Any data from after landing was frosting.
posted by Captain Ligntning at 8:01 PM on January 17, 2005

It sure is fun watching you all* out yourselves as either politically naive or /. bloviators.

Back to the topic, I am very interested in the light levels. I'll bet it's not unlike a moonlit night here. Imagine your digicam in THAT situation. And throw in things like radiation hardening, CCD with pixels large enough to integrate the feeble light, aforementioned 90's technology and bandwidth limits, et cetera.

Wishing ESA would give us more than just the handful of morsels released so far ... thank god for guys like Anthony Liekens.

* not "all" of course, present company excluded of course
posted by intermod at 8:50 PM on January 17, 2005

I hear it's cold there...
posted by Balisong at 11:17 PM on January 17, 2005

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