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The Solar System as a Laboratory—Exploration of the Giant Planets
MRIC 2006/07

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"The Solar System as a Laboratory—Exploration of the Giant Planets"

April 24th 
David Atkinson
Electrical and Computer Engineering

Abstract: The NASA Galileo mission to Jupiter in 1995 heralded a new era in the exploration of the outer solar system. For the first time, a planetary probe entered, descended under parachute, and directly sampled an atmosphere in the outer solar system. In 2004 the NASA/European Space Agency Cassini orbiter and probe arrived at Saturn, and in January, 2005 the European Space Agency Huygens probe descended to the surface of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Titan is a world with remarkable parallels to the Earth. Although much colder than Earth, Titan possesses a dense Nitrogen atmosphere, and, besides Earth, is the only body in the solar system with a surface comprising both solid ground and lakes.

Shrouded in a global haze evidencing a sophisticated hydrocarbon chemistry, the surface of Titan cannot be seen in visible light and, until Huygens’ arrival, had not been well studied. Throughout the descent of the Huygens probe, the structure, chemistry, and dynamics of Titan’s atmosphere were directly sampled and studied, and the surface of Titan imaged. How do we benefit from these Gigadollar (multi-billion dollar) space ventures, and what can detailed studies of the planets tell us about Earth? In this talk I will present both the Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Cassini mission to Saturn and Titan, with a particular emphasis on the atmospheric probes, and I will discuss how knowledge gained from planetary exploration translates into a better understanding of Earth’s atmosphere, weather, chemistry, history, and, possibly, future..

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