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Cassini Snaps Titan Close Up.
NASA's Cassini spacecraft swept past Titan on Tuesday, and returned the most detailed images ever taken of its surface - from an altitude of only 1,200 km (miles) above its surface. Previous attempts to see the moon's surface have been frustrating because of its thick atmosphere. scientists still aren't sure what the various light and dark areas are; they could be solid landmasses surrounded by oceans of liquid ethane and methane. The spacecraft took more than 500 images, so they're going to take a while to completely transfer to Earth - better pictures should be revealed in the next few days.
The Cassini spacecraft beamed back information and pictures tonight after successfully skimming the hazy atmosphere of Saturn’s Moon Titan. NASA's Deep Space Network tracking station in Madrid, Spain, acquired a signal at about 6:25 p.m. Pacific Daylight time (9:25 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time). As anticipated, the spacecraft came within 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) of Titan's surface.
At the time, Cassini was about 1.3 billion kilometers (826 million miles) from Earth. Numerous images, perhaps as many as 500, were taken by the visible light camera and were being transmitted back to Earth. It takes 1 hour and 14 minutes for the images to travel from the spacecraft to Earth. The downlink of data will continue through the night into the early morning hours. Cassini project engineers will continue to keep a close watch on a rainstorm in Spain, which may interrupt the flow of data from the spacecraft.
The flyby was by far the closest any spacecraft has ever come to Titan, the largest Moon of Saturn, perpetually drenched in a thick blanket of smog. Titan is a prime target of the Cassini-Huygens mission because it is the only Moon in our solar system with an atmosphere. It is a cosmic time capsule that offers a look back in time to see what Earth might have been like before the appearance of life.
The Huygens probe, built and operated by the European Space Agency, is attached to Cassini; its release is planned on Christmas Eve. It will descend through Titan's opaque atmosphere on Jan. 14, 2005, to collect data and touch down on the surface.
The latest information and images from Cassini are available at http://www.nasa.gov/cassini. Additional information on the mission and raw images are at http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov.
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Cassini-Huygens mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C.
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