DISR imaging and the geometry of the descent of the Huygens probe within Titan's atmosphere

Erich Karkoschka, Martin G. Tomasko, Lyn R. Doose, Chuck See, Elisabeth A. McFarlane, Stefan E. Schröder, Bashar Rizk

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The Descent Imager/Spectral Radiometer (DISR) provided 376 images during the descent to Titan and 224 images after landing. Images of the surface had scales between 150 m/pixel and 0.4 mm/pixel, all of which we assembled into a mosaic. The analysis of the surface and haze features in these images and of other data gave tight constraints on the geometry of the descent, particularly the trajectory, the tip and tilt, and the rotation of the Huygens probe. Huygens moved on average in the direction of 2{ring operator} north of east from 145 to 50 km altitude, turning to 5{ring operator} south of east between 30 and 20 km altitude, before turning back to east. At 6.5 km altitude, it reversed to WNW, before reversing back to SE at 0.7 km altitude. At first, Huygens was tilting slowly by up to 15{ring operator} as expected for a descent through layers of changing wind speeds. As the winds calmed, tilts decreased. Tilts were approximately retrieved throughout the main-parachute phase, but only for 160 specific times afterwards. Average swing rates were 5{ring operator} / s at high and low altitudes, but 13{ring operator} / s between 110 and 30 km altitude. Maximum swing rates were often above 40{ring operator} / s, far above the design limit of 6{ring operator} / s, but they caused problems only for a single component of DISR, the Sun Sensor. The excitation of such high swing rates on the stabilizer parachute is not fully understood. Before the parachute exchange, the rotational rate of Huygens smoothly approached the expected equilibrium value of 3 rotations per vertical kilometer, although clockwise instead of counterclockwise. Starting at 40 s after the parachute exchange until landing, Huygens rotated erratically. Long-term averages of the rotational rate varied between 2.0 and 4.5 rotations/km. On time scales shorter than a minute, some 100 strong rotational accelerations or decelerations created azimuthal irregularities of up to 180{ring operator}, which caused DISR to take most exposures at random azimuths instead of pre-selected azimuths. Nevertheless, we reconstructed the azimuths throughout the 360 rotations during the descent and for each of some 3500 DISR exposures with a typical accuracy near 2{ring operator}. Within seconds after landing, the parachute moved into the field of view of one of the spectrometers. The observed light curve indicated a motion of the parachute of 0.3 m/s toward the SSE. DISR images indicated that the probe did not penetrate into the surface, assuming a level ground. This impact of Huygens must have occurred on major rocks or some elevated area. The unexpected raised height increases ice-rock sizes by 40% with respect to estimations made in 2005 [Tomasko, M.G., Archinal, B., Becker, T., Bézard, B., Bushroe, M., Combes, M., Cook, D., Coustenis, A., de Bergh, C., Dafoe, L.E., Doose, L., Douté, S., Eibl, A., Engel, S., Gliem, F., Grieger, B., Holso, K., Howington-Kraus, E., Karkoschka, E., Keller, H.U., Kirk, R., Kramm, R., Küppers, M., Lanagan, P., Lellouch, E., Lemmon, M., Lunine, J., McFarlane, E., Moores, J., Prout, G.M., Rizk, B., Rosiek, M., Rueffer, P., Schröder, S.E., Schmitt, B., See, C., Smith, P., Soderblom, L., Thomas, N., West, R., 2005. Rain, winds and haze during the Huygens probe's descent to Titan's surface. Nature 438, 765-778]. During the 70-min surface phase, the tilt of Huygens was 3{ring operator}, changing by a small fraction of a degree. The apparent horizon looking south to SSW from the landing site was 1-2{ring operator} above the theoretical horizon, sloping by 1{ring operator} up to the left (east). Our best guess puts the horizon as a 1-2 m high hill in 30-50 m distance. We detected the refraction from warm, rising air bubbles above our illuminated spot. Bright, elongated, cm-sized objects appear occasionally on the surface. If real, they could be rain drop splashes or fluffy particles blown across Titan's surface.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1896-1935
Number of pages40
JournalPlanetary and Space Science
Issue number13
StatePublished - Nov 1 2007


  • Titan

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science

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    Karkoschka, E., Tomasko, M. G., Doose, L. R., See, C., McFarlane, E. A., Schröder, S. E., & Rizk, B. (2007). DISR imaging and the geometry of the descent of the Huygens probe within Titan's atmosphere. Planetary and Space Science, 55(13), 1896-1935. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pss.2007.04.019