In two days, it'll all be over; for better or worse, Huygens will have hit the ground on Titan, and back on Earth we'll be waiting to see whether the data will be returned. Today, I arrived at ESA's European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany. I'd never been to ESOC before and was curious about how it would compare to the mission control areas I've been in at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
To my surprise, when I arrived at ESOC, Huygens Mission Operations Manager Claudio Sollazzo came to greet me at the guardhouse. Sollazzo is a gregarious but soft-spoken Italian in his fifties, who worked for ESA in Germany for nearly twenty years before coming to the U.S. in 2001 to coordinate Huygens and Cassini operations. He was clearly the man of the hour, I observed as we walked together; our conversation was interrupted every minute by well wishes, a handshake, or a thumbs-up from every passer-by. He glowed with every expression of hope and goodwill. "It's going to be great," he told me.
But before it is great, there is an awful lot of work to be done to prepare for what is going to be ESA's biggest show ever. After we ate lunch I tagged along with Sollazzo to a media briefing given by Jocelyn Landau-Constantin, the head of ESA's communications office. Speaking about the number of media who plan to attend the descent, she said, "It's not only big, it's absolutely enormous!" There will be 220 members of the media present at ESOC--more than three times more, Sollazzo told me later, than there were for Mars Express' arrival at Mars.
Landau-Constantin was clearly delighted with the forthcoming media attention, but it was a delight tinged with a hint of panic. ESOC is much smaller than your typical NASA center; as Sollazzo gave me a tour of the operational areas I was stunned at how few buildings there were to hold the operational staff for essentially all of ESA's missions. Huygens, Mars Express, Integral, Rosetta -- small but fully equipped operations centers were devoted to each one. There could be as many visitors as there are staff on site on Friday for the drama of Huygens' descent.
By contrast, the science team members gathered for the meeting seemed to be happy and calm; they have little left to do before the data is returned, and appear to be eager for that long-awaited event to happen. At this point, there is nothing that anyone can do to affect the outcome of the mission; the point of no return came on December 24 when Sollazzo gave the order to the Cassini mission to separate Huygens from the orbiter. Now, everyone can only wait. Principal investigators like Marcello Fulchignoni, John Zarnecki, and Guy Israel blew off steam by ribbing each other. (Fulchignoni works on the Huygens Atmospheric Structure Instrument, whose acoustic data The Planetary Society will process to bring you the sounds of Titan); Zarnecki works on the Surface Science Package, which may or may not work at all after Huygens lands on whatever it lands on; and Israel works on the Aerosol Collector Pyrolyser instrument, which will be sniffing Titanian air.)
The big topic of the media briefing was: when and how will the first images be seen? The images will be seen first by the members of the Descent Imager Spectral Radiometer (DISR) team in their own work area; but when that first image is put together, it will be carried to the Mission Control Room by Landau-Constantin and DISR Principal Investigator Marty Tomasko. The moment that the first image is flashed on the Control Room screens, it will be seen by the viewers around the world who are fortunate enough to be able to tune in to the ESA TV or NASA TV feed. This will certainly not happen before 8:30 in the evening, local time (7:30 p.m. GMT / 11:30 a.m. PST).
But that first image will just be a postage stamp, one DISR frame. Because of the technical challenge of putting together 24 DISR frames captured by a spinning, falling spacecraft, it may be several days before we see the first DISR mosaic showing a full panoramic view around Huygens. Postage stamp or not, that first image will be really cool, and I'll post it here as soon as I get my hands on it.