British Instruments on Voyage to Saturn

By Jim Kelsey

BRITISH scientists and astronomers have contributed expertise and hardware to the Huygens space probe to Saturn and its moons, launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, United States, on 15 October 1997.

The space ship, named Cassini, will for the first time enable astronomers to study Titan, the largest moon in orbit around Saturn. The planet has long aroused curiosity because its atmosphere contains nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen - the elements that constitute life on Earth.

The composition is thought to mirror Earth's atmosphere as it was before living organisms appeared. Biologists hope that uncovering the chemical cycles operating on Titan will further their understanding of the evolution of terrestrial life.

Astronomers believe the investigations of Titan will give them an opportunity to return to the time our solar system was formed. Huygens, built at a cost of 267 million pounds sterling by the European Space Agency, is the centrepiece of the Cassini mission, the last in a procession of National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) space voyages that began with Mariner in the 1960s and '70s and continued with the Viking, Voyager, Pioneer, Ulysses, Magellan and Galileo missions.

There is a substantial United Kingdom scientific involvement in the probe. For instance a dual-technique magnetometer developed by London's Imperial College will measure Saturn's powerful magnetic field. Perfected in collaboration with the Ultra Electronics company the magnetometer will study the planet's extensive magnetosphere and search for magnetic fields around its moons.

An elaborate infrared spectrometer devised by Oxford University and London's Queen Mary and Westfield College will measure the cloud structure of Saturn and Titan and study their respective weather conditions. The college has also provided an imaging science sub-system that will take up to 500,000 photographs of the planet, its moons and rings in both optical and near-infrared wavelengths.

Kent University, of southern England, has provided surface science instruments for Huygens, designed to reach the surface of Saturn, and the probe will use British-designed parachutes to slow its approach to Titan.

During the seven-year exploration the Cassini spacecraft, which is named after the 17th-century French/Italian astronomer, will complete more than 60 orbits of Saturn including about 45 close fly-bys of Titan and 20 of some of the smaller icy moons.

Royal Astronomical Society, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, United Kingdom, W1V ONL. Telephone: +44 171 734 4582. Fax: +44 171 494 0166.

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