SETI Institute Principal Investigator
When the Huygens space probe plunges through the atmosphere of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, in its descent scheduled for January 15, 2005, physicist Robert Whitten will be holding his breath, awaiting data to test his theory about the flow of electricity in otherworldly atmospheres. As the Sun’s ultraviolet rays hit Titan’s hazy atmosphere, electrons are jettisoned from suspended aerosols, charging the atmosphere. Even when the Sun sets on Titan, the atmosphere of this moon continues to be bombarded with galactic cosmic rays. To understand the complex interplay of these sources of atmospheric electricity, Whitten will draw on data gathered by two spacecraft. The Huygens probe will tell him about Titan’s lower atmosphere, as the craft descends by parachute to the moon’s surface. Meanwhile, as the Cassini spacecraft orbits Saturn and periodically passes by Titan, Whitten will learn the electrical properties of Titan’s atmosphere at higher altitudes.
Not content to be a “one world physicist,” Whitten will apply the lessons he learns from Titan to investigate Jupiter’s murky atmosphere, where lightening may flash through the skies. Eventually, he and his colleagues will use their model to understand the tenuous atmosphere of Mars.
- SETI Institute Explorer, Special Edition 2005