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Cassini-Huygens (1997 – now)

Ward van der Houwen, Groningen, 1 juni 2011.

In 1997 the interplanetary probe Cassini-Huygens was launched in the direction of Saturn’s little ice moon Titan. The only moon in our system with an atmosphere. A thick opaque atmosphere. In 2005 Cassini-Huygens reached orbit around this moon, after which the Huygens lander separated herself from the mother-ship Cassini. In her next 3 hours she would decent, to eventually land on Titan’s surface. Much to the relief of her designers, she did actually land on solid ground. On solid ground of rock solid frozen carbon dioxide. On a small peninsula in a sea of slow sloshing methane. In the stormy half hour that Huygens fought against the inevitable freezing, lit only by this tiny orange, cold, star in the sky, our very own sun, it relayed one single photograph. A single photograph of an unimaginable alien world, that yet looked so familiar.

Titan photographed by Huygens

Huygens 1997-2005
(Translation Bryony Burns/WvdH)

So. Godforsaken. Far. Away.
This photograph. The stone no stone. The rocks an ice.
The ice a frozen air. The streams of rain a lashing chill
you’ll never warm from, liquid methane.
The clammy sand under your legs a cold saturated ethane sweating crust.
The slow slushing sea, normally this source of calm and peace,
now an alarming spectacle of drowsy deep and orange liquid slime embrace.
So cold. So deep tormenting, bone boiling cold,
that you would strain to suck the warmly orange, right out of that star you are beholding,
would it not avail to nothing. There is no warmth in it. And you feel the heat leak from where,
not so long ago an icy chill was still unknown.
And you know that this is how and when you slowly die.
That this is where not ever again, you can be found.
Or warmed, or held, or both.
One more time you signal up all you can see, to ears that quickly
fall past the horizon. And when that old companion of yours again returns,
she will be deaf. So that your last cold breath of air, will fall,
unheard onto your then for ever dead, deep frozen, pose.

But know that home, you are alive. Accept and feel the warmth
your makers thank you by, while they sleepily but satisfied,
dim the lights in the quarters where you just now,
slightly unlocked the infinite of space and time.
This glimpse of compassion that you offered
of worlds with strange and different laws.
I bid you well my Huygens, you, loyal trash of mine.