As Huygens peers, Europe cheers

Success of the space probe, flying by Saturn's largest moon Tuesday, gives the European Space Agency new clout.

When the Cassini spacecraft sped by Saturn's largest moon, Titan, Tuesday in the early hours of the European morning, rocket scientists like Claudio Sollazzo weren't the only ones getting excited.

In the years since Dr. Sollazzo began working with the European Space Agency (ESA), questions from workaday Europeans were typically unvarying - and they were not about distant comets or the vistas of Martian landscapes.

"The first thing they used to ask me was how much it all cost," says ESA's Italian operations manager.

Not anymore. Last month, the Euro- pean-built Huygens probe floated down through Titan's screaming winds and dim light into a place where, scientists suggest, liquid methane falls as rain, courses in cataracts through canyons of water-ice walls, and flows into wide seas.

"Now," Sollazzo says, "even my local baker is excited."

Tuesday marks Cassini's first flight past Titan since it dispatched the Huygens probe. It also serves as an exclamation point on a mission that proved that Europe - long overshadowed by its American and Russian counterparts - has finally established itself as a leader in space exploration.

The Huygens mission was "very significant for the European Space Agency," says Bruce Betts of the Planetary Society in Pasadena, Calif. "ESA hasn't had as long a history or as a high a profile [as NASA or the Russian program] ... but this will help with that."

ESA isn't resting on Huygens's laurels. Later this year, it will launch Venus Express, the first orbiter of our closest planetary neighbor in more than a decade. Early next decade, the Rosetta and BepiColombo spacecraft are expected to dispatch first-ever probes to land on a comet and on Mercury, respectively. And there is already chatter at ESA mission control about returning to Titan - this time with rovers.

Whether or not it happens, it is a sign of the agency's new confidence. "ESA is becoming a bit more like the Americans," says Sollazzo. "We are proud of what we've done, and that has helped management high up become a bit bolder recently."

It's an attitude that belies the modest appearance of ESA mission control here in Darmstadt, 25 miles south of Frankfurt. Wedged between an autobahn on-ramp and the town's main train station, the European Space Operations Center looks more like a basic office park than the endpoint for some of the world's most significant space science.

But ESA has always been about making more with less. Its 15 member nations contribute to a $3.5 billion annual budget - less than one-quarter of NASA's $16 billion allocation. Even with that disparity, however, Huygens showed that ESA can now stand on level footing with the US and Russia.

"The whole Cassini-Huygens mission was one of the most completely integrated collaborative missions ever flown," says Reta Beebe, an astronomer at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. "This is as near as we've gotten to being equal."

While the effort was certainly a collaboration with the US - Huygens piggybacked a ride to Titan on NASA's Cassini craft - the probe was a European state- ment in silicon and steel: We can do whatever you can do.

They did, and in that moment four weeks ago when photos of an alien landscape began streaming back to Earth, an overlooked collection of European engineers became scientific superheroes.

While the mission might not yet be Star Trek stuff, it was as bold and captivating as modern scientists could imagine. No space program had ever landed a probe on the surface of a planet or moon farther away than Mars. What's more, Titan had been shrouded in mystery. In pictures, it never looked like anything more than an orange cue ball. Obscured by a thick haze, it was the largest piece of unseen real estate in the solar system.

Since Cassini arrived at Saturn last summer, it had whisked above Titan's cloud tops twice, making out only indistinct patterns of light and dark through the haze.Within hours after Huygens arrived last month, though, fantastic pictures popped up on screens of ESA's copper-brown, 1980s-retro control room: Icy highlands washed bare by methane rain, which ran in channels down to vast floodplains, where the methane gradually seeped back into the ground.

Since then, scientists have scoured images and found what look like methane springs. And chemical data suggest cyrovolcanic activity: the eruption of melted water mixed with ammonia.

For Cassini, the Huygens data will help scientists decipher fuzzy pictures from the more than 40 fly-bys to come. For ESA, though, Huygens's squishy splat on the sodden plains of Titan was an important moment. As far back as 1986, ESA sent the Giotto probe hurtling by Halley's Comet, and its more recent Mars Express continues to orbit the Red Planet - all in relative obscurity.

But Huygens has changed that. "Suddenly there is this explosion in interest in what you're doing," says Sollazzo. "ESA is gaining a lot of recognition, and it's about time."

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