The Incredible Story of How the Huygens Mission to Titan Succeeded When It Could Have Failed

Twelve years ago today, the Huygens probe landed on Titan, marking the farthest point from Earth any spacecraft has ever landed. While a twelfth anniversary may be an odd number to mark with a special article, as we said in our previous article (with footage from the landing), this is the last opportunity to celebrate the success of Huygens before its partner spacecraft Cassini ends its mission on September 15, 2017 with a fateful plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere.

But Huygens is also worth celebrating because, amazingly, the mission almost failed, but yet was a marvelous success. If not for the insistence of one ESA engineer to complete an in-flight test of Huygens’ radio system, none of the spacecraft’s incredible data from Saturn’s largest and mysterious moon would have ever been received, and likely, no one would have ever known why.

The first-ever images of the surface of a new moon or planet are always exciting. The Huygens probe was launched from Cassini to the surface of Titan, but was not able investigate the lakes and seas on the surface. Image Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
The first-ever images of the surface Titan, taken by the Huygens probe. Image Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

As I detail in my new book “Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind-the-Scenes-Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos,” in 1999, the Cassini orbiter and the piggybacking Huygens lander were on their way to the Saturn system. The duo launched in 1997, but instead of making a beeline for the 6th planet from the Sun, they took a looping path called the VVEJGA trajectory (Venus-Venus-Earth-Jupiter Gravity Assist), swinging around Venus twice and flying past Earth 2 years later.

While all the flybys gave the spacecraft added boosts to help get it to Saturn, the Earth flyby also provided a chance for the teams to test out various systems and instruments and get immediate feedback.

“The European group wanted to test the Huygens receiver by transmitting the data from Earth,” said Earl Maize, Project Manager for the Cassini mission at JPL, who I interviewed for the book. “That’s a great in-flight test, because there’s the old adage of flight engineers, ‘test as you fly, fly as you test.’”

The way the Huygens mission would work at the Saturn system was that Cassini would release Huygens when the duo approached Titan. Huygens would drop through Titan’s thick and obscuring atmosphere like a skydiver on a parachute, transmitting data all the while. The Huygens probe didn’t have enough power or a large enough dish to transmit all its data directly to Earth, so Cassini would gather and store Huygens’ data on board and later transmit it to Earth.

Boris Smeds was head of ESOC’s Systems and Requirements Section, Darmstadt, Germany. Credit: ESA.

ESA engineer Boris Smeds wanted to ensure this data handoff was going to work, otherwise a crucial part of the mission would be lost. So he proposed a test during the 1999 Earth flyby.

Maize said that for some reason, there was quite a bit of opposition to the test from some of the ESA officials, but Smeds and Claudio Sollazzo, Huygens’s ground operations manager at ESA’s European Space Operation Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany were insistent the test was necessary.

NASA's Deep Space Network is responsible for communicating with Juno as it explores Jupiter. Pictured is the Goldstone facility in California, one of three facilities that make up the Network. Image: NASA/JPL
NASA’s Deep Space Network is responsible for communicating with spacecraft. Pictured is the Goldstone facility in California, one of three facilities that make up the Network. Image: NASA/JPL

“They were not to be denied,” Maize said, “so they eventually got permission for the test. The Cassini team organized it, going to the Goldstone tracking station [in California] of the Deep Space Network (DSN) and did what’s called a ‘suitcase test,’ broke into the signal, and during the Earth flyby, Huygens, Cassini and Goldstone were all programmed to simulate the probe descending to Titan. It all worked great.”

Except for one thing: Cassini received almost no simulated data, and what it did receive was garbled. No one could figure out why.

Six months of painstaking investigation finally identified the problem. The variation in speed between the two spacecraft hadn’t been properly compensated for, causing a communication problem. It was as if the spacecraft were each communicating on a different frequency.

Artist concept of the Huygens probe descending to Titan. Credit: ESA.

“The European team came to us and said we didn’t have a mission,” Maize said. “But we put together ‘Tiger Teams’ to try and figure it out.”

The short answer was that the idiosyncrasies in the communications system were hardwired in. With the spacecraft now millions of miles away, nothing could be fixed. But engineers came up with an ingenious solution using a basic principal known as the Doppler Effect.

The metaphor Maize likes to use is this: if you are sitting on the shore and a speed boat goes by close to the coast, it zooms past you quickly. But that same boat going the same speed out on the horizon looks like it is barely moving.
“Since we couldn’t change Huygens’ signal, the only thing we could change was the way Cassini flew,” Maize said. “If we could move Cassini farther away and make it appear as if Huygens was moving slower, it would receive lander’s radio waves at a lower frequency, solving the problem.”

Maize said it took two years of “fancy coding modifications and some pretty amazing trajectory computations.” Huygens’ landing was also delayed two months for the new trajectory that was needed overcome the radio system design flaw.

Additionally, with Cassini needing to be farther away from Huygens than originally planned, it would eventually fly out of range to capture all of Huygens’ data. Astronomers instigated a plan where radio telescopes around the world would listen for Huygens’ faint signals and capture anything Cassini missed.

Huygens was released from the Cassini spacecraft on Christmas Day 2004, and arrived at Titan on January 14, 2005. The probe began transmitting data to Cassini four minutes into its descent through Titan’s murky atmosphere, snapping photos and taking data all the while. Then it touched down, the first time a probe had landed on an extraterrestrial world in the outer Solar System.

Because of the communication problem, Huygens was not able to gather as much information as originally planned, as it could only transmit on one channel instead of two. But amazingly, Cassini captured absolutely all the data sent by Huygens until it flew out of range.

“It was beautiful,” Maize said, “I’ll never forget it. We got it all, and it was a wonderful example of international cooperation. The fact that 19 countries could get everything coordinated and launched in the first place was pretty amazing, but there’s nothing that compares to the worldwide effort we put into recovering the Huygens mission. From an engineering standpoint, that might trump everything else we’ve done on this mission.”

The view of Titan from the descending Huygens spacecraft on January 14, 2005. Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.

With its ground-breaking mission, Huygens provided the first real view of the surface of Titan. The data has been invaluable for understanding this unique and mysterious moon, showing geological and meteorological processes that are more similar to those on the surface of the Earth than anywhere else in the Solar System. ESA has details on the top discoveries by Huygens here.

Noted space journalist Jim Oberg has written several detailed and very interesting articles about the Huygens’ recovery, including one at IEEE Spectrum and another at The Space Review. These articles provide much more insight into the test, Smeds’ remarkable insistence for the test, the recovery work that was done and the subsequent success of the mission.

As Oberg says in IEEE Spectrum, “Smeds continued a glorious engineering tradition of rescuing deep-space missions from doom with sheer persistence, insight, and lots of improvisation.”

A modest Smeds was quoted by ESA: “This has happened before. Almost any mission has some design problem,” says Smeds, who says he’s worked on recovering from pre- and post-launch telecom issues that have arisen with several past missions. “To me, it’s just part of my normal work.”

For more stories about Huygens, Cassini and several other current robotic space missions, “Incredible Stories From Space” tells many behind-the-scenes stories from the amazing people who work on these missions.

Book Excerpt: “Incredible Stories From Space,” Roving Mars With Curiosity, part 2

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Following is Part 2 of an excerpt from my new book, “Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos.” The book is an inside look at several current NASA robotic missions, and this excerpt is part 2 of 3 which will be posted here on Universe Today, of Chapter 2, “Roving Mars with Curiosity.” You can read Part 1 here. The book is available in print or e-book (Kindle or Nook) Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Living on Mars Time

The landing occurred at 10:30 pm in California. The MSL team had little time to celebrate, transitioning immediately to mission operations and planning the rover’s first day of activity. The team’s first planning meeting started at 1 o’clock in the morning, ending about 8 a.m. They had been up all night, putting in a nearly 40-hour day.

This was a rough beginning of the mission for the scientists and engineers who needed to live on ‘Mars Time.’

A day on Mars day is 40 minutes longer than Earth’s day, and for the first 90 Mars days – called sols — of the mission, the entire team worked in shifts around the clock to constantly monitor the newly landed rover. To operate on the same daily schedule as the rover meant a perpetually shifting sleep/wake cycle where the MSL team would alter their schedules 40 minutes every day to stay in sync with the day and night schedules on Mars. If team members came into work at 9:00 a.m., the next day, they’d come in at 9:40 a.m., and the next day at 10:20 a.m., and so on.

Those who have lived through Mars Time say their bodies continually feel jet-lagged. Some people slept at JPL so as not to disrupt their family’s schedule, some wore two watches so they would know what time it was on two planets.

About 350 scientists from around the world were involved with MSL and many of them stayed at JPL for the first 90 sols of the mission, living on Mars Time.

But it took less than 60 Earth days for the team to announce Curiosity’s first big discovery.

Water, Water …

A 16-ft. (5 m) high sand dune on Mars called Namib Dune is part of the dark-sand ‘Bagnold Dunes’ field along the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. Images taken from orbit indicate that dunes in the Bagnold field move as much as about 3 feet (1 m) per Earth year. This image is part of a 360 degree panorama taken by the Curiosity rover on Dec. 18, 2015 or the 1,197th Martian day, or sol, of the rover's work on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.
A 16-ft. (5 m) high sand dune on Mars called Namib Dune is part of the dark-sand ‘Bagnold Dunes’ field along the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. Images taken from orbit indicate that dunes in the Bagnold field move as much as about 3 feet (1 m) per Earth year. This image is part of a 360 degree panorama taken by the Curiosity rover on Dec. 18, 2015 or the 1,197th Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s work on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

Ashwin Vasavada grew up in California and has fond childhood memories of visiting state and national parks in the southwest United States with his family, playing among sand dunes and hiking in the mountains. He’s now able to do both on another planet, vicariously through Curiosity. The day I visited Vasavada at his office at JPL in early 2016, the rover was navigating through a field of giant sand dunes at the base of Mount Sharp, with some dunes towering 30 feet (9 meters) above the rover.

“It’s just fascinating to see dunes close up on another planet,” Vasavada said. “And the closer we get to the mountain, the more fantastic the geology gets. So much has gone on there, and we have so little understanding of it … as of yet.”

At the time we talked, Curiosity was approaching four Earth years on Mars. The rover is now studying those enticing sedimentary layers on Mt. Sharp in closer detail. But first, it needed to navigate through the “Bagnold Dunes” which form a barrier along the northwestern flank of the mountain. Here, Curiosity is doing what Vasavada calls “flyby science,” stopping briefly to sample and study the sand grains of the dunes while moving through the area as quickly as possible.

Now working as the lead Project Scientist for the mission, Vasavada plays an even larger role in coordinating the mission.

“It’s a constant balance of doing things quickly, carefully and efficiently, as well as using the instruments to their fullest,” he said.

Since the successful August 2012 landing, Curiosity has sent back tens of thousands of images from Mars – from expansive panoramas to extreme close-ups of rocks and sand grains, all of which are helping to tell the story of Mars’ past.

‘Selfies’ taken by the Curiosity rover are actually a mosaic created from numerous images taken with the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), located on the end of the rover’s robotic arm. However, the arm is not shown in the selfies, because with the wrist motions and turret rotations used in pointing the camera for the component images, the arm was positioned out of the shot in the frames or portions of frames used in this mosaic. However, the shadow of the arm is visible on the ground. This low-angle selfie shows the vehicle at the site from which it reached down to drill into a rock target called "Buckskin" on lower Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.
‘Selfies’ taken by the Curiosity rover are actually a mosaic created from numerous images taken with the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), located on the end of the rover’s robotic arm. However, the arm is not shown in the selfies, because with the wrist motions and turret rotations used in pointing the camera for the component images, the arm was positioned out of the shot in the frames or portions of frames used in this mosaic. However, the shadow of the arm is visible on the ground. This low-angle selfie shows the vehicle at the site from which it reached down to drill into a rock target called “Buckskin” on lower Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

The images the public seems to love the most are the ‘selfies,’ the photos the rover takes of itself sitting on Mars. The selfies aren’t just a single image like the ones we take with our cell phones, but a mosaic created from dozens of separate images taken with the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera at the end of the rover’s robotic arm. Other fan favorites are the pictures Curiosity takes of the magnificent Martian landscape, like a tourist documenting its journey.

Vasavada has a unique personal favorite.

“For me, the most meaningful picture from Curiosity really isn’t that great of an image,” he said, “but it was one of our first discoveries so it has an emotional tie to it.”

Within the first 50 sols, Curiosity took pictures of what geologists call conglomerates: a rock made of pebbles cemented together. But these were no ordinary pebbles — they were pebbles worn by flowing water. Serendipitously, the rover had found an ancient streambed where water once flowed vigorously. From the size of pebbles, the science team could interpret the water was moving about 3 feet (1 meter) per second, with a depth somewhere between a few inches to several feet.

This geological feature on Mars is exposed bedrock made up of smaller fragments cemented together, or what geologists call a sedimentary conglomerate, and is evidence for an ancient, flowing stream. Some of embedded and loose gravel are round in shape, leading the Curiosity science team to conclude it were transported by a vigorous flow of water. Curiosity's 100-millimeter Mastcam telephoto lens on its 39th sol of the mission (Sept. 14, 2012). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This geological feature on Mars is exposed bedrock made up of smaller fragments cemented together, or what geologists call a sedimentary conglomerate, and is evidence for an ancient, flowing stream. Some of embedded and loose gravel are round in shape, leading the Curiosity science team to conclude it were transported by a vigorous flow of water. Curiosity’s 100-millimeter Mastcam telephoto lens on its 39th sol of the mission (Sept. 14, 2012). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

“When you see this picture, and whether you are a gardener or geologist, you know what this means,” Vasasvada said excitedly. “At Home Depot, the rounded rock for landscaping are called river pebbles! It was mind-blowing to me to think that the rover was driving through a streambed. That picture really brought home there was actually water flowing here long ago, probably ankle to hip deep.”

Vasavada looked down. “It still gives me the shivers, just thinking about it,” he said, with his passion for exploration and discovery visibly evident.

From that early discovery, Curiosity continued to find more water-related evidence. The team took a calculated gamble and instead of driving straight towards Mt. Sharp, took a slight detour to the east to an area dubbed ‘Yellowknife Bay.’
“Yellowknife Bay was something we saw with the orbiters,” Vasavada explained, “and there appeared to be a debris fan fed by a river—evidence for flowing water in the ancient past.”

This map shows the route driven by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover from the location where it landed in August 2012 to its location in September 2016 at "Murray Buttes," and the path planned for reaching destinations at "Hematite Unit" and "Clay Unit" on lower Mount Sharp. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
This map shows the route driven by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover from the location where it landed in August 2012 to its location in September 2016 at “Murray Buttes,” and the path planned for reaching destinations at “Hematite Unit” and “Clay Unit” on lower Mount Sharp.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Here, Curiosity fulfilled ones of its main goals: determining whether Gale Crater ever was habitable for simple life forms. The answer was a resounding yes. The rover sampled two stone slabs with the drill, feeding half-baby-aspirin-sized portions to SAM, the onboard lab. SAM identified traces of elements like carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and more —the basic building blocks of life. It also found sulfur compounds in different chemical forms, a possible energy source for microbes.

Data gathered by Curiosity’s other instruments constructed a portrait detailing how this site was once a muddy lakebed with mild – not acidic – water. Add in the essential elemental ingredients for life, and long ago, Yellowknife Bay would have been the perfect spot for living organisms to hang out. While this finding doesn’t necessarily mean there is past or present life on Mars, it shows the raw ingredients existed for life to get started there at one time, in a benign environment.

“Finding the habitable environment in Yellowknife Bay was wonderful because it really showed the capability our mission has to measure so many different things,” Vasavada said. “A wonderful picture came together of streams that flowed into a lake environment. This was exactly what we were sent there to find, but we didn’t think we’d find it that early in the mission.”

Still, this lakebed could have been created by a one-time event over just hundreds of years. The ‘jackpot’ would be to find evidence of long-term water and warmth.

That discovery took a little longer. But personally, it means more to Vasavada.

Mars’ climate was one of Vasavada’s early interests in his career and he spent years creating models, trying to understand Mars’ ancient history.

“I grew up with pictures of Mars from the Viking mission,” he said, “and thinking of it as a barren place with jagged volcanic rock and a bunch of sand. Then I had done all this theoretical work about Mars climate, that rivers and oceans perhaps once existed on Mars, but we had no real evidence.”

That’s why the discovery made by Curiosity in late 2015 is so exciting to Vasavada and his team.

“We didn’t just see the rounded pebbles and remnants of the muddy lake bottom at Yellowknife Bay, but all along the route,” Vasavada said. “We saw river pebbles first, then tilted sandstones where the river emptied into lakes. Then as we got to Mt. Sharp, we saw huge expanses of rock made of the silt that settled out from the lakes.”

The explanation that best fits the “morphology” in this region — that is, the configuration and evolution of rocks and land forms – is rivers formed deltas as they emptied into a lake. This likely occurred 3.8 to 3.3 billion years ago. And the rivers delivered sediment that slowly built up the lower layers of Mt. Sharp.

Curiosity picture showing the layers and color variations on Mount Sharp, Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL
Curiosity picture showing the layers and color variations on Mount Sharp, Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL

“My gosh, we were seeing this full system now,” Vasavada explained, “showing how the entire lower few hundred meters of Mount Sharp were likely laid down by these river and lake sediments. That means this event didn’t take hundreds or thousands of years; it required millions of years for lakes and rivers to be present to slowly build up, millimeter by millimeter, the bottom of the mountain.”

For that, Mars also needed a thicker atmosphere than it has now, and a greenhouse gas composition that Vasavada said they haven’t quite figured out yet.

But then, somehow dramatic climate change caused the water to disappear and winds in the crater carved the mountain to its current shape.

The rover had landed in exactly the right place, because here in one area was a record of much of Mars’ environmental history, including evidence of a major shift in the planet’s climate, when the water that once covered Gale Crater with sediment dried up.

“This all is a significant driver now for what we need to explain about Mars’ early climate,” Vasavada said. “You don’t get millions of years of climate change from a single event like a meteor hit. This discovery has broad implications for the entire planet, not just Gale Crater.”

Other Discoveries

• Silica: The rover made a completely unanticipated discovery of high-content silica rocks as it approached Mt. Sharp. “This means that the rest of the normal elements that form rocks were stripped away, or that a lot of extra silica was added somehow,” Vasavada said, “both of which are very interesting, and very different from rocks we had seen before. It’s such a multifaceted and curious discovery, we’re going to take a while figuring it out.”

• Methane on Mars: Methane is usually a sign of activity involving organic matter — even, potentially, of life. On Earth, about 90 percent of atmospheric methane is produced from the breakdown of organic matter. On Mars, methane has been detected by other missions and telescopes over the years, but it was tenuous – the readings seemed to come and go, and are hard to verify. In 2014, the Tunable Laser Spectrometer within the SAM instrument observed a ten-fold increase in methane over a two-month period. What caused the brief and sudden increase? Curiosity will continue to monitor readings of methane, and hopefully provide an answer to the decades-long debate.

• Radiation Risks for Human Explorers: Both during her trip to Mars and on the surface, Curiosity measured the high-energy radiation from the Sun and space that poses a risk astronauts. NASA will use data from the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) instrument Curiosity’s data to design future missions to be safe for human explorers.

Tomorrow: The conclusion of this chapter, including ‘How To Drive a Mars Rover, and ‘The Beast.’ Part 1 is available here.

“Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos” is published by Page Street Publishing, a subsidiary of Macmillan.

“Incredible Stories” From the Cassini Mission

When Cassini Project Scientist Linda Spilker thinks about her spacecraft, as it is out there gliding amidst the moons and rings of Saturn, there are times when she envisions it as a dancer or ice skater, spinning and turning to look at all the different targets.

“I picture Cassini as a she,” Spilker said, admitting to moments of anthropomorphizing, “because all good sailing ships are a she. She has these beautiful gold thermal blankets, and I see them as her golden flowing hair. I think she’s very joyful and curious and is definitely an explorer. That’s my view of what Cassini looks like.”

Does your spacecraft seem to have a personality?

That’s a question I asked every scientist and engineer who I interviewed for my book “Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos,” which comes out on Dec. 20, 2016. The answers varied, sometimes even among people who worked on the same mission. But, it seems, we humans can’t help but sometimes think of our robots as being just like us.

“There is a personality there,” Spilker said of the Cassini spacecraft, “and I think it is a reflection of the Cassini team. We take good care of her and watch over her, making sure everything goes right. And if she curls up in the middle of the night and says ‘Help!’ we all come in and want to fix her and get her running again.”

But during its 13-year mission, the Cassini spacecraft has had few anomalies and difficulties. As the Cassini team gears up towards the end of the mission in September 2017, they look back with amazement, gratitude and a sense of accomplishment.

“Everything about the spacecraft is rock solid,” said Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize. “There were really no compromises in the hardware whatsoever. All the design lessons learned from Galileo, Voyager and Magellan went into Cassini.”

Plus, the spacecraft engineering and science teams have been absolutely meticulous in managing the mission, Maize said.

“If we find an idiosyncrasy that looks like it might trend into an issue, we work around it. We have cranky reaction wheels, and we have nursed them. Plus the spacecraft has been very good at diagnosing itself and the team is very good at working through the issues. We’ve had very few difficulties in flight,” Maize said, grinning, looking towards the wooden table in front of us, and giving it a few knocks. “It looks good for us to finish up the mission strong.”

The 37 NASA scientists and engineers I interviewed for over a dozen different missions all had stories to tell and they all had their favorites. Maize said the main story of the Cassini is its durability and endurance. Launched in 1997, the spacecraft arrived at Saturn in 2004. Over the years, Cassini’s findings have revolutionized our understanding of the entire Saturn system, providing intriguing insights on Saturn itself as well as revealing secrets held by moons such as Enceladus and Titan.

“The main story is the longevity,” Maize said. “Voyager will always have us beat, because Cassini is an orbiter and it has certain sets of consumables – for example, the propellant — that will run out. But the longevity of the mission is a tribute to the developers. We had some amazing system engineers whose history of working on previous missions will likely never be repeated.”

Like many of those engineers, early in her career as a planetary scientist, Spilker worked on the Voyager mission.

Saturn captured by Voyager. Image credit: NASA/JPL
Saturn captured by Voyager. Image credit: NASA/JPL

“After the Voyager flybys of Saturn in 1980 and 1981, we realized we couldn’t see through the atmosphere of Titan because we didn’t have the right filters,” Spilker said, as we chatted in her office at JPL. “So people started planning in the early 1980’s for a mission that would go back to Saturn, and to look at Titan.”

Wes Huntress, longtime JPL scientist and Director of NASA’s Solar System Exploration Division, was in charge of developing this new mission, and in 1988 he asked Spilker to be his deputy.

“This project ultimately became Cassini,” Spilker said. “It didn’t have a name yet and wasn’t funded at that time, but I’ve been with it ever since. Talk about longevity!”

Spilker added that the entire mission has been a “wonderful experience,” and that she has been fascinated by Saturn ever since she got a telescope when she was in 3rd grade.

Maize said one of the most memorable moments for him came early in the mission: orbit insertion at Saturn.

This view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from about 17 degrees above the ringplane and was taken with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on Aug. 12, 2014. Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.
This view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from about 17 degrees above the ringplane and was taken with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on Aug. 12, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

“That was the must-do event,” he said. “We had a 45-minute burn and we were either a flyby mission or we were in business. I was feeling pretty good about the burn, but what was amazing about it was that if the burn was completed properly, we were going to be able to get some amazing images as the spacecraft came up over the ring plane of the planet. I was sitting with Ed Weiler the next morning at about 4:30 a.m., looking at those images and it was just amazing. I’ll never forget it. It was probably the hallmark moment for me.”

At that time, no spacecraft had ever been that close to Saturn’s rings before. Now, as the mission enters the beginning of the final phase of the mission –as it prepares to plunge into the gas giant in 2017 to protect any potential life on any of Saturn’s moons from contamination from the spacecraft — it will come even closer to the rings, diving close and through Saturn’s rings a total of 20 times.

“It’s taken years of planning, but now that we’re finally here, the whole Cassini team is excited to begin studying the data that come from these ring-grazing orbits,” said Spilker. “This is a remarkable time in what’s already been a thrilling journey.”

Cassini image of ice geysers on Enceladus (NASA/JPL/SSI)
Cassini image of ice geysers on Enceladus (NASA/JPL/SSI)

What will Cassini’s legacy be? Spilker offered a unique perspective.

“The biggest legacy will be how it has helped us realize all the different possibilities of where life might be found, even within our own solar system,” she said. “We’ve found that you don’t necessarily need to have a planet in the sweet spot from a star, where you could have liquid water on the surface. That might change the way we look at exoplanets. Yes, let’s find those earths or super-earths in that sweet spot, but when our instruments improve, let’s look for those giant planets that might have moons that might have life. That has broadened our places to look. From Cassini, I think we’ve learned that maybe there’s a lot more possibility for life than we had ever imagined.”

“Incredible Stories From Space” takes readers behind the scenes of the unmanned missions that are transforming our understanding of the solar system and beyond. Weaving together one-on-one interviews along with the extraordinary sagas of the spacecraft themselves, this book chronicles the struggles and triumphs of nine current space missions and captures the true spirit of exploration and discovery. Look for more “stories” and an excerpt from the book as the release date of Dec. 20 approaches.

Why Space Exploration Represents the Best of Humanity

The current divisiveness that seems to be permeating our culture has many wondering if we can ever overcome the divisions to find our common humanity, and be able to work together to solve our problems. I’ve said – only somewhat jokingly — that if there are any alien species out there, waiting to make first contact with the people of Earth in order to unify our planet, now would be a good time.

I saw a quote last week, where in remembering astronaut John Glenn, Bill Nye said “Space exploration brings out our best.”

I really believe that. Space exploration challenges us to not only to be and do our best, but reach beyond the ordinary, push the boundaries of our scientific and technical limits, and then to push even further. That “intangible desire to explore and challenge the boundaries of what we know and where we have been,” as NASA has phrased it, has provided benefits to our society for centuries. With space exploration, our desire to answer fundamental questions about our place in the Universe can not only help to expand technology, but it helps us look at things in new ways and it seems to help foster a sense of cooperation, and – if I may – peaceful and enduring connections with our fellow humans.

If we could only look for and encourage the best in each other, and simply spend time cooperating and working together, I think we’d be amazed at what we could accomplish.

The people involved in space exploration already do that.

The team from the Mars Science Laboratory celebrate the successful landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars in August of 2012. Credit: NASA/JPL.
The team from the Mars Science Laboratory celebrate the successful landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars in August of 2012. Credit: NASA/JPL.

I recently had the opportunity to meet with some of our best, brightest and boldest and witness the cooperation and respect that it takes for space missions to succeed. Over the past several months, I interviewed 37 NASA scientists and engineers from current robotic missions for a book I wrote, “Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos.” In all these stories these scientists and engineers shared with me, several things stood out.

Cooperation

Space exploration offers an incredible example of cooperation. Getting a mission off the ground and keeping it operational for as long as possible takes an amazing amount of cooperation. A delightful children’s book titled “Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon” by Catherine Thimmesh shows how it took hundreds of thousands of people from not just the United States, but also from around the world to send the astronauts to the Moon. From rocket scientists to the seamstresses that sewed the spacesuits together, to the radio operators around the globe that monitored communications, each person, each step was an important link in the chain of what it took to make the Apollo 11 mission possible.

And while my book focuses on NASA missions (I really wish traveling abroad to include missions from other space agencies would have been in my budget!) almost all robotic missions these days are international ventures.

Helmut Jenkner, who is currently the Interim Head of the Hubble Space Telescope Mission, told me that the international nature of the Hubble mission has brought an inherent diversity to the project. The diverse approach to solving problems has helped Hubble be such a successful mission, and with Hubble in space for nearly 27 years, Jenkner said that diverse approach has helped the Hubble mission to endure.

JPL Waves at Saturn As NASA's Cassini spacecraft turned its imaging cameras to Earth, scientists, engineers and visitors at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., gathered to wave at our robotic photographer in the Saturn system on July 19, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
JPL Waves at Saturn As NASA’s Cassini spacecraft turned its imaging cameras to Earth, scientists, engineers and visitors at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., gathered to wave at our robotic photographer in the Saturn system on July 19, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In virtually all robotic missions, scientists from around the world work together and provide their expertise from building instruments to analyzing the data. Working across borders and languages can be difficult, but for the mission to succeed, cooperation is essential. Because of the common goal of mission success, differences from major to petty can be put aside.

On a robotic spacecraft, the many different components and instruments on board are built by different companies, sometimes in several different countries, but yet all the pieces have to fit together perfectly in order for a mission to succeed. Just putting together a mission concept takes an incredible amount of cooperation from both scientists and engineers, as they need to figure out the great compromise of what is possible versus what would be ideal.

I don’t mean to be completely Pollyanna here, as certainly, there are personality conflicts, and I know there are people involved in space missions who have to work side-by-side with someone they don’t really like or don’t agree with. There is also intense competition: the competition for missions to be chosen to get sent to space, the rivalry for who gets to lead and make important decisions, and disagreements on the best way to proceed in times of difficulty. But yet, these people work it out, doing what is necessary in order for the mission to succeed.

Inclusiveness

An artist's conception of Juno in orbit around Jupiter. image credit: NASA
An artist’s conception of Juno in orbit around Jupiter. image credit: NASA

Space exploration brings out a sense of inclusiveness. Many of the Apollo astronauts have said that when they traveled to other countries following the missions, people around the world would say how proud they were that “we went to the Moon.” It wasn’t just the US, but “we humans” did it.

When the Curiosity rover landed, when Juno went into orbit around Jupiter, when the Rosetta mission successfully went into orbit around a comet (and then when the mission ended), when New Horizons successfully flew by Pluto, my social media feeds were filled with people around the world rejoicing together.

Being inclusive and encouraging diversity are “mission critical” for going to space, said astrophysicist Jedidah Isler at the recent White House Frontiers Conference. “We have both the opportunity and the obligation to engage our entire population in this epic journey [into space],” she said.

Also at White House Frontiers, President Obama said that “Problem solving through science, together we can tackle some of the biggest challenges we face.”

Dedication and Commitment

New Horizons flight controllers celebrate after they received confirmation of the spacecraft's successful flyby of Pluto on July 14, 2015. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.
New Horizons flight controllers celebrate after they received confirmation of the spacecraft’s successful flyby of Pluto on July 14, 2015. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

Another human aspect that stood out during my interviews is the dedication and commitment of the people who work on these missions to explore the cosmos. Interview after interview, I was amazed by the enthusiasm and excitement embodied by these scientists and engineers, their passion for what they do. I truly hope that in the book, I was able to capture and convey their incredible spirit of exploration and discovery.

Space exploration takes people working long hours, figuring out how to do things that have never been done before, and never giving up to succeed. Alan Stern, Principal investigator for the New Horizons mission to Pluto explained how it took “dedication from 2,500 people around the country who worked all day plus nights and weekends for over 15 years” for the mission to makes its successful flyby of Pluto in July 2015. The dedication continues as the New Horizons team has their sights on another ancient body in the Kuiper Belt that the spacecraft will explore in January 2019.

Taking the larger view.

 

The first image ever taken of Earth from the surface of a planet beyond the Moon. The image was taken by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit's panoramic camera on March 8, 2004, one hour before sunrise on the 63rd Martian day, or sol, of its mission. Credit: NASA/JPL.
The first image ever taken of Earth from the surface of a planet beyond the Moon. The image was taken by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit’s panoramic camera on March 8, 2004, one hour before sunrise on the 63rd Martian day, or sol, of its mission. Credit: NASA/JPL.

Space exploration helps us look beyond ourselves.

“A lot of space exploration is taking you out of the trees so you get a glimpse of the forest,” Rich Zurek told me when I visited him at JPL this year. Zurek is the head of NASA’s Mars exploration program, as well as the Project Scientist for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. “A classic example is the Apollo 8 view of the Earth over the Moon’s horizon. You can imagine what the planet looks like but when you actually see it, it is very different and can evoke many different things.”

The first views of Earth from space and seeing the fragileness of our planet from a distance help launch the environmental movement in the 1970’s, which continues today. That planetary perspective is crucial to the future of humanity and our ability solve world-wide problems.

“Working on a project like this gives meaning in general because you are doing something that is outside of yourself, outside of our personal problems and struggles, and you really think about the human condition,” said Natalie Batalha, who is the mission scientist for the Kepler missions’ hunt for planets around distant stars. “Kepler really makes us think about the bigger picture of why we’re here and what we’re evolving towards and what else might be out there.”

Space explorations expands our horizons, feeds our curiosity, and helps us finding all sorts of unexpected things while helping to answer profound questions like how did the Universe begin? How did life begin? Are we alone?

Does that sound too utopian? Like in Star Trek, space exploration offers an optimistic view of the future, and humanity. Star Trek’s “Infinite Diversity from Infinite Combinations” says the only way we grow is through new ideas and experiences, and as soon as we stop exploring, we stop growing.

“We are all confined to Earth but yet we reach out and undertake these grand adventures to space,” said Marc Rayman, who is the director and chief engineer for the Dawn mission to the asteroid belt. He is one of the most passionate people – passionate about space exploration and life itself — I’ve ever talked to. “We do this in order to comprehend the majesty of the cosmos and to express and act upon this passion we feel for exploration. Who hasn’t looked at the night sky in wonder? Who hasn’t wanted to go over the next horizon and see what is beyond? Who doesn’t long to know the universe?”

“Anyone who has ever felt any of those feelings is a part of our mission,” Rayman continued. “We are doing this together. And that’s what I think is the most exciting, gratifying, rewarding and profound aspect of exploring the cosmos.”

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“Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos”is available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, with delivery by Dec. 20.

Two New Books From Universe Today Writers, Just in Time for the Holidays

Looking for great holiday gifts for that special someone who is interested in space and the stars? Two writers for Universe Today have you covered whether it’s exploration of the Solar System or learning what to look for in the night sky.

Universe Today’s Contributing Editor Nancy Atkinson shares the insights of over 35 NASA scientists and engineers in her new book “Incredible Stories from Space.” And if that gives you the itch to go outside and look up, be sure to get a copy of Bob King’s “Night Sky with the Naked Eye” to help you explore space from your own backyard.

In “Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing our View of the Cosmos” Nancy takes readers inside the robotic space missions that are transforming our understanding of the solar system and beyond.

Weaving together one-on-one interviews along with the extraordinary sagas of missions, this book provides a detailed look at both current and future unmanned missions. It chronicles the struggles and triumphs of nine current spacecraft and captures the true spirit of exploration and discovery. Full color images throughout reveal scientific discoveries and the stunning, breathtaking views of our universe, sent back to Earth by our robotic emissaries to the cosmos.

From the first-ever mission to Pluto to the unprecedented hunt for planets outside our solar system, readers will journey along with missions like New Horizons, Kepler, the Curiosity Mars rover, and the iconic Hubble Space Telescope as they unlock the mysteries of the universe. Learn more about the latest findings in our solar system with the Cassini mission to Saturn, Dawn’s visit to the asteroid belt, the Solar Dynamics Observatory, and the Mars and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiters. Explore the future of space exploration with a preview of upcoming missions.

Over the next couple of weeks, Nancy will be sharing “writing-of” stories and other insights garnered during her interviews and travels for the book. Also look for a preview of one chapter here on Universe Today during the week of Dec. 19.

Cover of Bob King's book. Credit: Bob King/Page Street Publishing
Cover of Bob King’s book. Credit: Bob King/Page Street Publishing

“Night Sky with the Naked Eye: How to Find Planets, Constellations, Satellites and Other Night Sky Wonders without a Telescope” will help you gain a deeper appreciation of the universe and our place in it while advancing your knowledge of the night sky.

Bob lays out a series of activities that are fun and educational while teaching you how to spot the International Space Station, follow the moon through its phases, forecast an aurora and watch a meteor shower along with traditional night sky activities like identifying the planets, stars and constellations. Unique illustrations and stunning photos help the reader understand the concepts presented.

Bob also shows readers how to use a smart phone, the Internet and other resources to enhance time spent under the stars, making this a truly modern and updated night sky book. Many people curious about the night sky think you need expensive equipment to enjoy it. You don’t. This book shows how we can learn a lot about the universe and deepen our appreciation of its beauty using nothing more than our eyeballs.

Bob recently wrote an article, “What I Learned Writing Night Sky With the Naked Eye,

Both books were published by Page Street Publishing, a subsidiary of Macmillan. They are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and IndiBound (links below, with great discounts available at this time!) While Nancy’s book doesn’t come out until Dec. 20, its available for pre-order with delivery on the 20th, just in time for the holidays.

Incredible Stories From Space:
Amazon
Barnes & Noble
IndieBound

Night Sky With the Naked Eye:
Amazon
Barnes & Noble
IndieBound