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Hello, Titan!
Jamais Cascio, 14 Jan 05

landing01.jpgIf you've been at any of the vaguely science and technology related websites -- or even major news sites -- today you've undoubtedly already heard, but since we've been posting about this all along, we should note this if only for completeness' sake: Huygens made it to the surface of Titan.

This is the first time we've tried landing on an outer solar system body, and the system -- a combined NASA/ESA effort -- seems to have worked flawlessly. We'll get more information and images once the folks back in ESOC Spacecraft Operations get done processing the data. I can hardly wait!

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Sounds of an alien world! The microphones survived the descent, and the data came back. Links to audio files are at:

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 15 Jan 05

Thanks for the link, Emily. It doesn't sound like much -- but it's sound from another world, and that's pretty cool!

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 15 Jan 05

Yes, exactly.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 15 Jan 05

I have never been able to understand why today in the year 2004 space photos always come back initially as black and white. You would think that since we've been able to transmit color photos (i.e color television) of live events since the early 1960's, that they would have color photography in space by now. Why is it then that all the photos come back black and white, and any color we actually see in these photos is ARTIFICIAL.

Despite that, I'm very happy that we are getting data back from this most mysterious and facinating moon (which might as well be a planet).

Posted by: Paul Hughes on 15 Jan 05

Paul, color photographs (digital and analog), as well as TV and video, actually consists of three sets of values - red, green, and blue. If you looked at any one of those bands separate from the others, just looking at the intensity values, you would see an image in black and white. Early color photography was like this - you take a black-and-white picture with a red filter, another with a blue filter, and another with a green filter, and then you project each of those positives on to the screen using the same color filter used to take the shot. Red, green, and blue together make a color image.

Many instrument packages sent into space are capable of sensing multiple areas of the EM spectrum, above and below what human eyes can see. Each of these spectral bands are transmitted separately, and it is only after post-processing can a "true" color image be produced.

Posted by: David Price on 15 Jan 05

I understand what you're saying, what I don't understand is why I can go out right now with a $300 camera and take a hi-fidelity picture that is leaps and bounds better than the image I'm seeing today of the surface of Titan. AND this image is processed in less than a second! This camera cost me $150. Now granted Casinni was built nearly a decade ago, but still. I still cannot understand why such a simple and inexpensive technology is not used as a matter of routine on all these space probes (both on Titan and the ones on Mars), in ADDITION to all the other non-visible spectrum instrumentation. Given this, all this so-called 'post-processing' makes no sense. To this day I have been distinctly unimpressed with the level of photography coming from our space probes, sans Hubble.

And since I'm in 'bitch' mode, why o why do NASA scientist insist on giving all Mars images a VERY false red color to their images? As a life-long space enthusiast, and as someone who got their BS in Phyics and Aerospace Engineering I can assure you that Mars is not THAT red. The martian sky in fact as a distinctly bluish color most of the time, just like on Earth.

Posted by: Paul Hughes on 16 Jan 05

Paul, two words:


If using a camera which takes ostensibly black & white images that are then refiltered and post-processed saves several ounces (or, since Huygens was a European-made probe, a couple hundred grams) over using a better camera, that will often be sufficient cause to use the lesser camera. The weight saved can then be used by another instrument; images, while useful and compelling, aren't the only (or even the most important) scientific data returned.

As for bandwidth, black & white images (along with the filter data) use fewer bits to send than better shots. In the case of Huygens, this is especially important, as they only had a few hours of Huygens being in Cassini's sights, so all the readings from all the sensors had to be sent up to Cassini in that time. Bigger color pictures would have taken more of the signal, and would have meant less data from other sensors.

And, again, bigger/better antenna and transmitters mean more weight.

The bandwidth situation is subject to a lot of research, and newer probes, while smaller, often transmit more because of better compression, better electronics, etc..

In the case of Huygens, to top it all off, the craft was launched seven years ago, and the design specs were frozen before that. 10 year old technology is a good estimate, and may even be a bit optimistic. Given the constraints on weight and bandwidth, I'm hardly surprised the images from Titan are as small as they are.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 16 Jan 05

Thanks Jamais for the increased clarity. I still take issue with the reasoning however. We are talking about a probe that cost in excess of a billion dollars. With costs per pound of of an Earth/Saturn trajectory (including initial launch) to be somwhere near $25,000/lb, adding a few extra grams as you said, would be so astronomically small in comparison to the overall price tag. Additionally, these probes are being financed by tax dollars. The overwhelming number of people whose tax dollars financing this WANT hi fidelity color photo's. It's those photos that make the whole darn space exploration enterpise compelling, now whether there is a slight variance in the methane gas mixtures. It is precisely those photos that get kids excitied about space, that generates enthusiasm for people at bars and coffee houses, and it is precisely those images that get people to support a space program in the first place.

Putting all this into perspective - the nearly marginal cost of extra weight and cost of better photography equipment, the tremendous pay off in public support, and the "WOW" factor that drives our passions to explore space in the first place, desrver better than the meager images we are getting now.

Posted by: Paul Hughes on 16 Jan 05

The most evocative Titan image is the one of what appears to be a shoreline:

An alien shoreline!

What a lovely and appropriate sight to greet a visiting spacecraft; a high-tech version of LAND HO!

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 17 Jan 05

Substract age of personal camera technology!
What about holograms?

Posted by: H.Bos on 22 Jan 05



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