The Huygens Probe was named after Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch astronomer who in 1655 discovered Titan, Saturn's largest moon. The probe was designed by the European Space Agency (ESA), to perform an in-depth study of the clouds, atmosphere, and surface of Titan.
Image right: Building the Huygens Probe
Image credit: ESA
The Huygens probe will be plunging into a planetary atmosphere farther away from Earth than any other deep space probe has gone before.
Traveling onboard the Cassini orbiter throughout the seven-year journey to Saturn, the probe will undergo a series of in-flight tests and health checks to ensure that all of its instruments are working properly. This is essential, because the distance from Earth is too great to provide signals and commands. This means that the programming of the probe must be precise and work automatically so that valuable data can be communicated back to the orbiter and then back to Earth.
The 319-kilogram (703-pound) Huygens probe will separate from the Cassini orbiter in December of 2004, and will begin a 22-day coast phase toward Titan. Remaining on the Cassini orbiter will be the probe support equipment (PSE), which includes the electronics necessary to track the probe and to recover the data gathered during its descent. Then, in January of 2005, just 45 minutes before reaching the atmosphere of Titan, timers will wake up the Huygens probe.
As it finally enters Titan's atmosphere, three sets of parachutes will slow down the probe and provide a stable platform for scientific measurements. The fully instrumented robotic laboratory will reach the mysterious Titan's surface about two and half hours later.