Feeds

Boffins map surface of Titan by accident

Radio ga-ga

5 things you didn’t know about cloud backup

Every planetary landing mission that flies from now on will effectively gain an new sensor set without a single extra piece of equipment, thanks to a chance discovery by scientists working on data from the Huygens lander.

When Huygens unexpectedly survived the impact of its landing on Saturn's moon, Titan, the radio signal it was sending to its mothership, Cassini, was reflected off the surface of the moon. This unexpected reflection interfered with the main signal.

The ESA team has been able to use the pattern of interference to learn more about the surface of the moon. Now, they say that by subtly altering the properties of a radio beam, a lander on a future mission could be tweaked to send scientists useful information about the chemical composition of the surface, for instance.

Miguel Pérez-Ayúcar a member of the Huygens Team at ESA’s European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in The Netherlands commented: “Huygens had not been designed to necessarily survive impact so we had never thought about what the signal would look like from the surface,” says Pérez.

He jokes that the team initially suggested the signal was being caused by aliens dragging the lander across the surface.

However, after a more serious investigation, Pérez and his team worked out what was going on.

Cassini was not in orbit around Titan, but was flying by on its way to Saturn. As it travelled away from the Huygens landing site, the angle between it and the lander changed. This altered the way in which the interference between the reflected and direct beams was detected, causing variation in the signal's power.

Pérez built a computer simulation that not only reproduced the effect the team had observed, but revealed that it was sensitive enough to pick out variations caused by individual pebbles on the moon's surface.

In the 71 minutes the lander spent on the surface before Cassini flew out of range, this reflection interference sent back information about a two kilometre stretch of the moon's surface.

The team was able to conclude that it was quite flat, but strew with pebbles of between five and 10cm in diameter.

The serendipitous discovery will be everyone's gain.

"This experience can be inherited by any future lander," said Pérez, "All that will be needed is a few refinements and it will become a powerful technique." ®

Boost IT visibility and business value

More from The Register

next story
Our LOHAN spaceplane ballocket Kickstarter climbs through £8000
Through 25 per cent but more is needed: Get your UNIQUE rewards!
Cutting cancer rates: Data, models and a happy ending?
How surgery might be making cancer prognoses worse
Boffins ID freakish spine-smothered prehistoric critter: The CLAW gave it away
Bizarre-looking creature actually related to velvet worms
CRR-CRRRK, beep, beep: Mars space truck backs out of slippery sand trap
Curiosity finds new drilling target after course correction
SpaceX prototype rocket EXPLODES over Texas. 'Tricky' biz, says Elon Musk
No injuries or near injuries. Flight stayed in designated area
Brit balloon bod Bodnar overflies North Pole
B-64 amateur ultralight payload approaching second circumnavigation
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Endpoint data privacy in the cloud is easier than you think
Innovations in encryption and storage resolve issues of data privacy and key requirements for companies to look for in a solution.
Scale data protection with your virtual environment
To scale at the rate of virtualization growth, data protection solutions need to adopt new capabilities and simplify current features.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?