Anticipation here at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) is rising to a fever pitch. The full complement of more than a hundred scientists are here from all over Europe and the U.S.; they are running around, greeting each other, getting ready for the long-awaited data. At the same time, the media office is building stages, setting up lights, doing rehearsals, making last-minute changes... All in all it feels like tomorrow is going to be Huygens' wedding. Except that there are over a hundred 'parents' of this bride. In the middle of the preparatory madness they organized the taking of huge group photos of all the scientists and engineers around a model of the probe (wedding portraits?), and there's going to be a big banquet this evening for all of the visitors including VIPs from around Europe (the rehearsal dinner??). Perhaps I've stretched this simile too far, but the mood in the air really feels like the happiness, chaos, and stress right before a wedding.
ESOC held their first press conference this afternoon, which didn't reveal anything particularly new to those of us who have been paying attention and anticipating this mission. Huygens will descend to Titan tomorrow morning, but we won't know what happened until much later. Mission Manager Claudio Sollazzo told us, "Huygens will enter the atmosphere about 10 in the morning but we will not hear anything until 5:15 and that will make us very very nervous."
There were a few items in the media briefing that were news to me. One item: it is looking more and more like the best images from the surface of Titan will not come from Cassini's main cameras, but instead from the VIMS instrument, the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer, which can look through longer-wavelength "windows" in Titan's atmosphere.
Another item that was news to me came from Marty Tomasko, the University of Arizona researcher who heads the Descent Imager Spectral Radiometer team (that's the main camera on Huygens). His last images are expected to come from about 150 meters off the ground. But, if Huygens survives the landing, DISR could still take pictures. What's cool about that is if Huygens lands in a liquid, it would be taking pictures through that liquid, seeing what's suspended in it. But I've been taking an informal poll of the science team to find out what they think they will land on, and no one has predicted liquid. The predictions range from "icy" to "squelchy" (the latter is how Surface Science Package investigator John Zarnecki described it ). After a few of these questions during the press briefing, Tomasko finally said, "This is probably not the best day to speculate. Probably you should save that question for 36 hours, and then we'll have a much better answer to give you."