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First on Titan: Five years ago the Huygens space probe built by prime contractor Thales Alenia Space landed on Saturn's most mysterious moon

14 January 2010

Cannes, January 14, 2010 – For its first planetary mission in 1991, the European Space Agency selected Thales Alenia Space as prime contractor, leading a team of manufacturers from throughout Europe. The objective was the on-site exploration of an unknown atmosphere around an enigmatic moon, located much further away than any other atmospheric probe had ventured to date. Thales Alenia Space and a European industrial consortium rose to the challenge, and the Huygens space probe lifted off on October 15, 1997, attached to the Cassini orbiter and headed for Saturn.

On January 14, 2005 – exactly five years ago – after a voyage through the Solar System lasting more than seven years, Huygens made a flawless landing on Titan, an unparalleled achievement for the global scientific and space communities.

Fantastic harvest

All data gathered by Huygens during its descent and from the surface of Titan were transmitted to the Cassini orbiter. To pick up this invaluable data, the orbiter pointed its 4-meter-diameter high-gain antenna, built by Thales Alenia Space as part of the Italian space agency’s mission contribution, towards Titan. When Cassini lost contact as it slipped below the horizon of the landing site, the probe kept transmitting signals, which were picked up by large radio telescopes back on Earth. Subsequently, Cassini once again directed its antenna towards the Earth to relay the recorded data. All in all, Huygens operated for 148 minutes during its descent, and for more than three hours on the ground.

For scientists around the world, these 474 megabits of data, including 350 photos, were a veritable “manna from heaven”, food for study for decades to come. It turns out that the dynamics of the Titan atmosphere are comparable to those on Venus, Earth and Mars, enabling us to expand our scope of investigations in comparative planetology, as well as our understanding of planetary atmospheres – especially of our own planet. The surface of Titan revealed a world modelled by cryovolcanic eruptions, along with precipitation of methane and other hydrocarbons. The Cassini orbiter later detected lakes of liquid methane in Titan’s polar regions. Furthermore, measurements of atmospheric conductivity by Huygens showed the probable presence of an ocean of ammonia-rich water under a crust of ice some 45 kilometers thick.

In the last five years, the Cassini orbiter has continued its mission around Saturn, and recently flew over Titan for the 65th time. During each flyover, the 4-meter antenna is used as a radar to pierce the moon’s cloud cover and draw up a precise topographic map.

Europe joins the major leagues

Thales Alenia Space and its partners have firmly established Europe as a world-class space power, by achieving the successful first entry into a largely unknown atmosphere on the furthest celestial body ever reached physically by a man-made object, and largely exceeding the initial mission objectives. Since 2005, in fact, Thales Alenia Space has contributed technologies to operations around four of the eight planets in our Solar System: Venus (with Venus Express), the Earth, Mars (with Mars Express), and Saturn (with Cassini).

In addition, Thales Alenia Space is the prime contractor for the ExoMars Martian exploration mission, slated for 2016, and is a major player in ESA’s Rosetta comet mission, handling Assembly, Integration and Testing (AIT). This spacecraft is now en route for the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and should reach it in mid-2014.

Back to Titan

By offering a first look at this strange new world, Huygens answered many questions, and raised many more. To answer them, scientists are firmly convinced that a new mission is necessary, one that would release a balloon in the Titan atmosphere, and possibly a lander on one of its lakes, in order to study the methane cycle and seek to discover its possible organic compounds.. Whenever a similar mission is launched, Thales Alenia Space is once again ready to contribute its unrivaled expertise to the international scientific community.

About Thales Alenia Space

European leader in satellite systems and a major player in orbital infrastructures, Thales Alenia Space is a joint venture between Thales (67%) and Finmeccanica (33%). Thales Alenia Space and Telespazio embody the two groups’ “Space Alliance”. Thales Alenia Space sets the global standard in solutions for space telecoms, radar and optical Earth observation, defense and security, navigation and science. The company, which achieved revenues of Euro 2 billion in 2008, has a total of 7,200 employees located in 11 industrial sites in France, Italy, Spain and Belgium.

Thales Alenia Space Press Contacts

Florence Pontieux
Tel: +33 (0)1 57 77 91 26

Sandrine Bielecki
Tel: +33 (0)4 92 92 70 94

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