Prof John Zarnecki on his work with the Huygens probe

With Destination Titan airing this Sunday on BBC Four, Sky at Night Magazine spoke to Prof John Zarnecki about his mission to explore Saturn's enigmatic moon.

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Prof Zarnecki (left) waits expectantly for the launch of the Cassini-Huygens mission at Kennedy Space Center in 1997

 

Ever since his meeting with Yuri Gagarin, who 50 years ago became the first man in space, Prof John Zarnecki has been fascinated with space exploration.
 

This interest culminated with the successful delivery of his science package to the surface of Titan in 2005, as the Huygens probe landed on this mysterious world.

 
Airing Sunday 10 April on BBC Four at 10pm, Destination Titan tells the incredible story of Prof Zarnecki’s mission to study the face of Saturn’s most enigmatic moon.
 

Sky at Night Magazine took the opportunity to speak with him about his work designing the mission’s science payload.

 
 
What was it that inspired you to study science?

Teachers, parents, an aptitude for numbers and meeting Yuri Gagarin. I don’t know if I believe in ‘Eureka moments’ but if I do, then mine was on 14 July 1961. There I was, a London schoolboy, standing in Highgate Cemetery, just a few feet away from Yuri Gagarin who was there to pay homage at Karl Marx’s grave. I remember being overwhelmed at the thought that this man, who seemed like a mere mortal, had actually spent 100 minutes in space! I was gob smacked. If there was a day that changed my life that was as close as it came!

What excited you about Titan and inspired you to start the design of Huygens?

The opportunity. I’d probably not even heard of Titan in 1988. We were backing another project to go to an asteroid, but it was not selected. Instead ESA and NASA decided to go to Saturn and Titan. It was too good an opportunity to miss! And how could you not be excited about Titan. At the time, it was the largest (80 million square km) piece of unexplored real estate in the Solar System!

What was the biggest challenge that you faced when designing the science payload to go on Huygens?

We designed the Surface Science Package (SSP) aboard Huygens. The challenge was the ‘usual’ constraints – not enough, mass, volume, power and data rate assigned to us. Plus the problems of surviving for 7.25 years in deep space and then operating correctly and for the first time in a rather alien environment.

Was there ever a time when you didn’t think that the probe would be a success?

Many! The worst was about three years into the flight when a ground test showed that there was a fundamental flaw in the design of the on-board communication system. That was a rather depressing few months, but we eventually identified a fairly drastic work around. It was applied and the rest is history!

What was the mood like in the control room on the night that Huygens finally landed?

I’m not a poet or even a writer, and so don’t have the words to describe it. The following words spring to mind: silent panic, fear, hope, blind optimism. Above all, it was a day of emotion!

What would you say was the most important result gained from Huygens?

Probably that we have found an active, diverse, dynamic world with many processes that are  familiar to us on Earth, but with materials and an environment that are quite alien.

You’ll soon take up a visiting professorship at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. What will you be working on?

I'll be working with Chinese colleagues on space instruments of mutual interest that we can hopefully fly on upcoming Chinese or European space missions to the Moon, Mars, asteroids, comets and anywhere else that’s interesting!

What do you think are the advantages to the partnerships between Western and emerging Asian countries in the design of space probes?

The pooling of talent, ideas and resources, and different ways of approaching and tackling problems.

Do you feel that these partnerships are the future for space exploration?

Even now, I’m still an idealist and feel that science is for everybody. And especially these fundamental questions of what our Solar System and Universe looks like and our place in it – these should be tackled by us all working in collaboration. So the answer is ‘yes’.


 

 

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