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University of Iowa News Release

Jan. 10, 2005

Local Telescope To Aid Jan. 14 Exploration Of Titan

Eastern Iowa, by way of the North Liberty radio telescope, will participate in the exploration of Titan, Saturn's largest moon, on Jan. 14.

That's when the European Space Agency's 700-pound Huygens spacecraft -- part of NASA's Cassini spacecraft probe of Saturn, its rings and moons -- is scheduled to dive into Titan's atmosphere and begin collecting data on the atmosphere and the rest of the planet.

The information will be gathered by the National Science Foundation's National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), one of the world's premier research facilities for radio astronomy. The NRAO includes the 10 radio antennas of the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), stretching from Mauna Kea, Hawaii across the United States to St. Croix, the Virgin Islands and including the North Liberty, Iowa, instrument. The VLBA is operated from the NRAO's Array Operations Center in Socorro, New Mexico.

Robert Mutel, professor in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) Department of Physics and Astronomy, says that the North Liberty radio telescope was built about 15 years ago to match its nine sister instruments and to replace a less powerful telescope. Today, it plays an important role in the VLBA network as the only telescope located between Los Alamos, N.M., and Hancock, N.H. Mutel, whose research interests include using the VLBA to study active galaxies, active stars and interstellar turbulence, is one of several UI researchers who use the facility for teaching and research.

The position and condition of the probe as it parachutes through the atmosphere will reveal information about Titan's winds, which were measured in excess of 200 miles an hour during the Voyager 1 spacecraft 1980 flyby. A European-led team will track the probe's position during its descent, while a U.S.-led team will measure the probe's descent speed and the direction of its motion.

The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in West Virginia and eight of the 10 VLBA telescopes (those located at Pie Town and Los Alamos, N.M., Fort Davis, Tex., North Liberty, Iowa, Kitt Peak, Ariz., Brewster, Wash., Owens Valley, Calif., and Mauna Kea, Hawaii) will directly receive the faint signal from Huygens during its descent. Radio telescopes in Australia, Japan and China will also gather data.

Cassini, carrying 12 scientific instruments, on June 30, 2004 became the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn and begin a four-year study of the planet, its rings and its 31 known moons. The $1.4 billion spacecraft is part of the $3.3 billion Cassini-Huygens Mission that includes the Huygens probe, a six-instrument European Space Agency probe, scheduled to land on Titan Jan. 14.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif. manages the Cassini-Huygens mission for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter. For the latest images and information about the Cassini-Huygens mission, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/cassini.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Gary Galluzzo, 319-384-0009, gary-galluzzo@uiowa.edu