On March 25, 1655, Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens discovered Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. He was a multi-disciplined scientist, mathematician, and inventor who, among other activities, investigated refraction, polarized light, and introduced his wave theory of light.
With his brother, Huygens built telescopes of varying sizes and construction. They built long tubes over 70 m (230 ft) with hand-polished lenses – the longer the tube, the better the view. Huygens discovered Mars’ polar caps, the bulge at Jupiter’s equator, Saturn’s rings, and made studies and sketches of nebula. At one point, Huygens skipped the long tube altogether! He fixed the end lens component of a telescope to the top of a tree and lined up a handheld eyepiece component at even greater length for better viewing to create an “air” telescope. This was not a great success. Fortunately, more powerful lenses were becoming available and could multiply the viewing power in a much shorter tube.
Huygens used one of these, with a 50 power lens, and found Titan. It took scientists 350 years to learn much more about Titan. After its seven-year journey to Saturn’s system, the Cassini spacecraft released the Huygens Probe into Titan’s atmosphere on Jan 14, 2005. We learned that, beneath its clouds, Titan is extremely cold, with an atmosphere of nitrogen and methane, rivers of liquid methane, hydrocarbon lakes, and rocks of water ice.
In addition to this atmospheric probe, Huygens’ name is also honoured in a mountain range on the moon, a crater on Mars, and a small asteroid belt. The Christiaan Huygens Medal from the European Geosciences Union is awarded for geoscience instrumentation and data systems. The Christiaan Huygens Science Award of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences encourages innovative research in the disciplines in which Huygens excelled.
Saturn’s moon Titan revealed itself in tantalizing bits of information to Cassini-Huygens whose mission extended to 2017. Here’s a NASA overview of Titan and its exploration.
B Bondar / Real World Content Advantage