Scientists and space enthusiasts are excited about pictures of Saturn's moon Titan that are now being sent to earth by the Cassini orbiter. More detailed images will come from the lander Huygens after it reaches Titan's surface in mid-January. A U.S. organization called the Planetary Society is asking is asking people to envision what it will find.
The Cassini-Huygens mission is an international effort, with the U.S. space agency NASA responsible for the orbiter, and the European Space Agency responsible for the lander. The Italian space agency provided the mission's high-gain communications antenna.
Titan is the only moon in the solar system with a substantial atmosphere. Newly received infrared and radar images show the contours of the surface beneath its cloud cover. Bruce Betts, director of projects for the Planetary Society, says excited scientists are busy analyzing the data. "The mood is ecstatic regarding Titan. It's been a mystery for centuries, certainly since Voyager showed us this cloud-shrouded world," he says.
That was in the early 1980s when two Voyager probes sent back images of Saturn's most intriguing moon.
Mr. Betts says we will have a better understanding of Titan's surface when the Huygens probe lands there January 14. In the meantime, the Planetary Society has teamed up with the European Space Agency to sponsor a worldwide art contest, asking people to imagine what the probe will find.
Emily Lakdawalla, the society's coordinator for science and technology, says some contestants are mailing their entries to the society's office, but most are sending digital scans of their artwork over the Internet. She says they are working in various media. "You could even produce needlepoint. You could produce sculpture. You could produce a tapestry. You could make a painting or a drawing or a computer-drawn image if you wanted to," she says.
The contest will close November 28, and a panel of judges will evaluate the entries for their scientific accuracy and artistic merit. Ms. Lakdawalla says the grand prize is exciting: a trip to Huygens mission control. "We'll be sending one person, or if it's a person under 18, one person and their parent, to Darmstadt, Germany, during the Huygens descent to Titan. So you'll be there when the Huygens probe is going down to the surface of Titan," she says.
There are two classifications for entries, one for youth aged 10 to 17, and another for adults 18 and older.
She says entries so far mostly show murky skies with the sun barely peeking through. "Another thing that people are very excited about is the possibility that there could be lakes of liquid ethane and methane down there, and so people are imagining ocean-scapes," she says.
Bruce Betts says there is little chance that Titan can support life as we know it. Temperatures are much too cold. But he says that in some ways, Titan resembles the earth four billion years ago before the emergence of life here. "Titan can tell us about planet formation, moon formation, but also potentially about the early earth and what the pre-biotic earth was like in terms of its atmosphere and the chemistry going on. So it hopefully has a lot to tell us," he says.
Information on the Titan art contest can be found on the Planetary Society's website at www.planetary.org.