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    Saturday, January 15, 2005

    Huygens Probe Successfully Touches Down on Titan. Anyone Remember Cassini and Plutonium?

    15 January 2005

    Yesterday, it went out over the newswires that the Huygens probe, an endeavor of the European Space Agency (ESA) touched down safely on Saturn's moon, Titan, and has proceeded to send back some stunning data. I am personally very excited about this since Titan, the only moon in the Solar System with an atmosphere, has always fascinated me. Apparently, Titan is so cold that it could have oceans and rivers of liquid methane. According to one expert who studied some of the images sent back, it looks like it also rains methane there and, in fact, it looked like it had rained the same day that the Huygens probe began its descent. To me, it's wonderful that we are able to study this phenomenon close up, and I am certainly grateful to the ESA for providing the world with such an experience via their Huygens probe. One question, though. Does anyone remember how the Huygens probe got to Titan? I do, but I didn't make the connection at first.

    The news reports I hear rarely give the full name of the mission spacecraft, which is 'Cassini-Huygens'. That was also a new one on me. The news media has done a confusing job covering this mission. When I first heard that Huygens set down on Titan, and that it was a European probe, I was confused. The craft that was sent out to Saturn in the late 1990s was Cassini, highly reported as the plutonium-carrying harbinger of death, doom, and destruction that NASA launched. I remember its launch well, having first heard about it in Spring of 1997 when literature was distributed at my High School claiming that Cassini was going to kill us all, or some such nonsense. By the time the craft was launched, I was well into my first semester at college. We didn't die. The groups protesting the use of nuclear power in space, of which I'd never heard before 1997, claimed that there was a reasonable chance that death, doom, and destruction could result from an accident involving NASA's Cassini space vehicle, either at the launch, or in 1999 when it would pass by Earth again after having slingshotted around Venus. Never mind the fact that the Cassini-Huygens (the media didn't call it that back then) launch would "be the 24th time generators containing plutonium have been used in space exploration, and there has never been an accident."

    The reason I'm telling you all this is because I want to point out something that I think is weird about the reporting. I told you I was confused when the news reported that 'Huygens' had landed on Titan. Back when I first heard about the craft, it was just 'Cassini'. Cassini, according to the news reports, was a NASA (American) project that used plutonium as a power source and could likely kill us. No one mentioned that the Cassini vehicle was a joint venture of NASA, the ESA, and Italy's ASI, or that the vehicle also carried the ESA's Huygens probe (hence the platform's full name of 'Cassini-Huygens').

    Now that the exploration platform is safely away from Earth, it is called 'Cassini-Huygens' and the 'Cassini' part is barely mentioned at all. The media speaks admirably about the success of Huygens and the ESA, without a mention of the Cassini craft that NASA launched. It seems to me that NASA is getting all of the blame in the bad PR, and none of the credit in the good PR. Taking the 1997 and 2005 reporting together (and at their word), I would come away with the conclusion that NASA is bad and wants to kill us with plutonium, and that the ESA is good and wants to explore, and that there are two crafts in space named Cassini and Huygens, which may or may not be part of the same platform.
    ---------(Reuters) Titan Probe Drops Into 'Creme Brulee'-Like Surface (Sat Jan 15, 2005 08:30 AM ET)
    ---------(CNN) Much ado about Cassini's plutonium: Critics say launch could result in deadly disaster (October 10, 1997; Web posted at: 7:11 p.m. EDT)
    ---------(The Touchstone) THE CASSINI PLUTONIUM LAUNCH, OCT. 6, 1997(September/October 1997)
    ---------ESA Cassini-Huygens Site
    ---------ESA: More on Cassini-Huygens spacecraft
    ---------NASA JPL Cassini-Huygens Home

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    Subject Matter: Astronomy Media Bias Science Space Exploration


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    "If you love wealth more than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, depart from us in peace. We ask not your counsel nor your arms. Crouch down and lick the hand that feeds you. May your chains rest lightly upon you and may posterity forget that you were our countrymen."

    --Samuel Adams

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