Lord of the rings

SKY club hosts down-to-earth exploration of ringed planet, Saturn

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Have you ever wondered what it sounds like in outerspace?

You can find out tonight as Colorado Mountain College astronomy professor Jimmy Westlake plays a recording sent back from the Huygens Probe as it fell through the atmosphere of Titan, one of Saturn's 33 moons.

"They hoped to hear the sound of distant thunder," Westlake said. Instead, you hear the wind whistling by and the sound of a radar ping gauging the probe's distance from the surface. "It's kind of eerie."

The sound recording will be part of the CMC SKY Club's presentation, "Saturn: The Real Lord of the Rings."

Westlake will be showing a slideshow of Saturn images taken by the Cassini spacecraft, which currently is orbiting the ringed planet, and from the Hubble telescope. At the end of the evening, weather permitting, audience members will get a chance to see Saturn through a telescope.

Westlake said he always gets a big reaction from people looking at Saturn for the first time through a telescope.

"They can't believe they are actually seeing something they've seen in books," Westlake said.

Westlake chose Saturn because it is close to Earth right now and good for observing through a telescope, but he also chose the planet because it is in the news right now. Every day, scientists learn something new.

Cassini is sending back images daily, and researchers are combing through all the data sent back by Huygens.

It is a historic time in astronomy, which Westlake plans to show his audience by discussing knowledge of Saturn since Galileo first discovered it in 1610.

Galileo barely could make out the rings, which he described as "ears" or "cup handles." The rings were not seen as such until telescopes improved and astronomer Christian Huygens saw them more clearly in 1655. Until 1977, Neptune was thought to be the only planet with rings. Now we know that all the giant planets have rings.

Westlake also will discuss the recent findings coming back from the Huygens mission. The Huygens probe landed on Titan on Jan. 14. The descent took about two hours, and when it landed, the probe transmitted data and images back to Earth for an hour. During that entire time, the Huygens probe took about 350 photos and sent back measurements of everything including wind speeds and temperature.

Titan is the largest of Saturn's moons, and it interests scientists because of its nitrogen atmosphere. On Titan, it periodically rains liquid methane.

"It is somewhat like Earth, only it is 250 degrees below zero," Westlake said. "From studying Titan, we can get an idea of what an early Earth might look like."

NASA releases new information about Titan everyday on the Cassini/Huygens homepage: http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/home/index.cfm.

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