It was in January 2005, when I—a planetary geologist only recently turned to writing about space for a living—was crammed along with two dozen other reporters into a room at the European Space Agency operations center in Germany.
Europe's Huygens probe had just completed its descent through Titan's atmosphere, and we knew the spacecraft had been working ESA had received its radio transmissions. But there was a delay and the pictures did not come. Other journalists started speculating. Maybe the camera hadn't worked. We were being kept in the dark.
And then someone emailed me a tip that the images had appeared—leaked—on a university website. I clicked and gasped. I called all the other journalists to come over and look at them. There were pictures, lots of them, and they were amazing.
Within an hour, denizens of the Internet all over the world had assembled the tiny little Huygens images into panoramas depicting an incredible landscape—a new world, never before seen by human eyes, that was also amazingly familiar.
Branched river channels merged and then debouched into a dark bay. It was Saturn's moon Titan; it looked like Long Beach, California.
The day of Huygens' landing was my introduction to the power of amateur space enthusiasts to thrill the world by turning gnarly image data into something beautiful that communicates the drama of space exploration. Since then, I've been working to bring the amateur and professional communities together—to open data to amateurs, and to encourage professionals to employ the artistic skill of amateurs to tell their stories of space exploration.
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