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Originally published January 21, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 21, 2005 at 4:30 PM

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Idaho prof's Saturn experiment — 18 years of work — may be saved

The head of the space probe mission to Titan said today that much of the data from a botched experiment designed by a University of Idaho professor was recovered by radio telescopes on Earth.

The Associated Press

SPOKANE — The head of the space probe mission to Titan said today that much of the data from a botched experiment designed by a University of Idaho professor was recovered by radio telescopes on Earth.

Huygens mission manager Jean-Pierre Lebreton said in Paris that analysis of the data from the Doppler Wind Experiment will take longer than previously expected because of the glitch.

"All of the scientific objectives of DWE are going to be made from the ground," Lebreton said in a telephone interview. "We got a good signal which could be detected on the Earth."

On Thursday, Idaho scientist David Atkinson said that someone failed to turn on a radio receiver for the instrument he needed to measure the winds on Saturn's largest moon. Because of that error, data transmitted by the gear on the Huygens lander was not received by the Saturn-orbiting Cassini spacecraft for relay to Earth.

"The story is actually fairly gruesome," the University of Idaho scientist said in an e-mail from Germany, the headquarters of the European Space Agency. "It was human error — the command to turn the instrument on was forgotten."

Atkinson spent 18 years designing the experiment for the unmanned space mission to Saturn. He did say Thursday there was a chance that some of the data that was beamed toward Cassini could be picked up on Earth.

Atkinson, who is still at the ESA working on the project, could not be immediately reached for comment today.

Lebreton said an investigation showed clearly that a remote control command to activate the receiver was not sent, which prevented the data from being collected by Cassini.

But he noted that the equipment on the Huygens probe worked perfectly.

"The probe sent a clean signal and this allowed us to do the experiment from the ground using radio telescopes," Lebreton said.

Because the data was collected on Earth, Lebreton said analysis will likely take longer and require more processing.

The mission to study Saturn and its moons was launched in 1997 from Cape Canaveral, Fla., a joint effort by NASA, the European agency and the Italian space agency. Last Friday, Huygens, the European space probe sent to the surface of Saturn's moon Titan, transmitted the first detailed pictures of the frozen surface.

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Atkinson and his team were at headquarters in Darmstadt, Germany, waiting for their wind measurements to arrive.

The probe was to transmit data on two channels, A and B, Atkinson said. His Doppler wind experiment was to use Channel A, a very stable frequency.

But the order to activate the receiver, or oscillator, for Channel A was never sent, so the entire mission operated through Channel B, which is less stable, Atkinson said.

"I (and the rest of my team) waited and waited and waited," he wrote, as the probe descended. "We watched the probe enter and start transmitting data, but our instrument never turned on."

Atkinson wrote in his e-mail that fellow scientists rushed to comfort him and his team.

Most of his team has returned home, but Atkinson has remained in Germany because he still has a task to perform — reconstructing the entry and descent trajectory of the probe.

Even so, he said the overall space mission was a huge success, and the Europeans in particular were thrilled with the success of their Huygens probe.

"In total, the core of our team has invested something like 80 man years on this experiment, 18 of which are mine," Atkinson wrote. "I think right now the key lesson is this — if you're looking for a job with instant and guaranteed success, this isn't it."

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