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Jean-Pierre Lebreton could barely contain his exultation as a faint radio signal originating from an international probe on the surface of Titan, one of Saturn's moons, was picked up in Germany on Jan. 14 at 11:20 a.m. "Right on time," the 55-year-old French physicist and leader of the Cassini-Huygens mission remembers thinking. "It was a very emotional moment. It was hard not to cry."
Lebreton and his team of scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA) had spent much of the past 20 years preparing for that moment. Finally, their mission to land a probe on Titan was accomplished. The Cassini-Huygens probe, which took off from Cape Canaveral on Oct. 15, 1997, and spent all those years making its way to its destination, is a joint effort by ESA and the U.S.'s NASA. Lebreton has worked on it almost exclusively since he joined ESA after earning his doctorate in math and physics at the Université d'Orléans in France. "I came to ESA in 1978 as a post-doc for two years, and I'm still here," says Lebreton, who reads works by the late astronomer Carl Sagan for fun.
It has been a long haul -- and one of the biggest challenges was keeping ESA and NASA working together. NASA footed the majority of the project's nearly $3 billion bill and "threatened to stop the project several times," says Lebreton, mostly because funding was scarce. But all the difficulties were forgotten when the Huygens probe plunged through the chemical haze that makes up Titan's atmosphere and began transmitting both images of the moon and data on its murky surface back to Cassini, the mother probe in orbit around Saturn. Cassini relayed the information to Lebreton and his team at mission control in Darmstadt, Germany.
Lebreton describes the surface of Titan as a "chemical soup," much like Earth billions of years ago. But the temperatures on Titan are colder than on Earth, and there's no life, he says. Lebreton plans to spend a few more years analyzing data from Cassini. "In a sense it allows us to go back in time and study the early Earth," he says. After spending most of his working life focused on a single orb in space, Lebreton is just starting to tap its many secrets.
By William Boston