Cassini-Huygens: 20-Year Mission Accomplished

Copyright: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Cassini’s Probe Huygens Decent to the Surface of Saturn’s Moon Titan. Courtesy: ESA / NASA / JPL / University of Arizona (5)

On October 15th, 1997, the $3 billion spacecraft went on a seven year, two-billion-mile journey to study the planet Saturn along with its moons and rings. After arriving at the Saturnian system, Cassini deployed the 700-pound Huygens probe to its largest moon, Titan. At 100 miles above the surface the aerosol collector pyrolizer (ACP) and gas chromatograph – mass spectrometer (GC-MS) identified the components in the atmosphere (1). Initial observations after touchdown revealed methane rain drenching the hills and staining the ground with streaks left from higher molecular weight hydrocarbons. The probe was only expected to survive for several minutes, however, the battery had enough power to operate on the surface for nearly 70 minutes. While several different manufacturers were evaluated for capillary columns, two of Restek’s MXT columns were chosen; MXT-1 & MXT-1701 in the 0.18mm internal diameter format (2,3).  The most abundant organic compounds on the surface of the planet were evaporating gases such as; ethane, acetylene, cyanogen and carbon dioxide (4). Most interesting was the discovery that the probe’s landing had allowed for an increase of methane indicating the ground contains high amounts of the liquid. Further investigation by the Cassini craft orbiting Titan discovered an ocean of liquid methane 200 miles under the crust. Today Cassini ends its 13-year orbit around Saturn and NASA has steered the craft into the atmosphere. The gravitational forces of the planet accelerated the spacecraft to 75,000 miles per hour, effectively vaporizing it. We are proud to have been able to contribute our columns to such a monumental mission.

Further Reading: Sitting Down with a Chromatography Icon: Dr. Robert Sternberg


  1. DiGregorio, B. E. GC-MS Analysis on Titan Mission. May 2005. Spectroscopy.

2. Navale, V., Harpold, D. and Vertes, A. Development and Characterization of Gas Chromatographic Columns for the Analysis of Prebiologic Molecules in Titan’s Atmosphere. Anal. Chem. 1998, 70, 689-697.

3. Szopa C., Sternberg R., Rodier C., Coscia D., and Raulin F. Development and Analytical Aspects of Gas Chromatography for Space Exploration. February 2001. LCGC Europe.

4. Niemann, H.B., Atreya, S.K., Bauer S.J., Biemann K., et. al. The Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer for the Huygens Probe. Space Science Reviews. 2002. 104: 553-591.

5. Image provided Courtesy of ESA / NASA / JPL / University of Arizona


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