A space probe today (Friday) plunged into the atmosphere of a very distant moon that’s orbiting the planet Saturn — and some Iowans are anxiously watching via computer. Kris Anderson is the space science specialist at the Science Center of Iowa. He says the moon Titan has a chemical makeup that’s assumed to be very similar to that of early Earth.It’s the only moon in our solar system with a thick atmosphere, composed mostly of nitrogen. Titan is some 300-degrees below zero though, so it’s much colder than Earth has ever been, but Anderson says scientists believe Titan may still hold clues about Earth’s early environment. The Huygens probe has been riding aboard a spacecraft called Cassini, which was built, in part, by researchers at the University of Iowa. Cassini was launched in October of 1997 and it arrived at Saturn in July. So far, Anderson says, it’s working fine and will continue to function for many more years. Anderson is hosting a program called “Ringworld” at the Science Center in Des Moines starting at two o’clock this (Friday) afternoon. The planetarium show will offer an in-depth look at the descent, the parachutes and heat shield and any images that may come in from the probe. Huygens will be the first human-made object to explore on-site the unique environment of Titan. Data gathered during the two-and-a-half hour descent will be transmitted to Cassini and relayed through NASA’s Deep Space Network back to earth for scientists to study.A giant radio telescope, or what looks like a big satellite dish, in eastern Iowa near North Liberty, is being used to download vital data from the Huygens probe, being “piggy-back” transmitted via the Cassini mothership.
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