Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Monday 17/1/2005Huygens was a terrific success. The public relations side was not.

Monday 17/1/2005
Huygens was a terrific success. The public relations side was not. We sat and waited in the Royal Society. There was news -- and then there was none. There'd been a successful acquisition of the Huygens radio signal by Cassini, but one channel was missing. Data had been returned without a single error -- but half had been lost. Um. Right.

All through this the video feed from Darmstadt was full of European bureaucrats and journalists, with the occasional break for science.

The high point of this circus of ineptitude came with the arrival of the first picture. Since Titan's discovery 340 years ago, no telescope had penetrated the cloud cover: an image of the surface would be one of the crowning achievements of ESA's scientific research. The word came back from an excited mission control: "We have the first images of Titan: they've come in in the past three minutes and here they are!" The hall full of journalists erupted in applause as they peered up at the screens -- meanwhile, back in London and around the planet, bemusement gave way to laughter and then some anger -- the cameras in Darnstadt remained fixed on the clapping hacks.

Eventually, someone noticed and up popped the image. But this was to be the theme of the rest of the afternoon -- information arrived late if at all while the ESA publicity machine concentrated almost exclusively on ministers, heads of department and other notables saying how happy they were. The science was an afterthought.

The picture online was just as woeful -- we were promised loads, then not so many, then one. Another arrived just as they were closing down the meeting.

Which made what happened later that weekend so exciting. At some point on Saturday, the entire set of Huygens images appeared on a US Web site to be eagerly gobbled up by the space geeks. Since God in his wisdom has ensured that our planet is now well equipped with computers and picture editing software, it was mere hours before mosaics, animations, 3D projections and other compilations appeared.

The ESA scientists should take their time over delivering results. If you've been working for 10 years on a one-off billion dollar experiment that lasts two hours, gratifying the geeks is not and should not be high on the list of things to do. Likewise, you don't want your raw data to be out there too soon -- a hiatus while you do your work before others can leap in is reasonable. But the sort of things that came out over the weekend as a result of eager amateurs should have been encouraged -- if not actually organised -- by the ESA. While the raw images were exciting, that extra work generated a strong feeling that we had found and started to explore a new world unlike any other we'd seen -- except, curiously, our own. Shorelines, flowing liquid, clouds, even waves: after 20 years of gas giants, arid deserts and tumbling asteroids this was a flashback to the golden age, where Mars had canals and Venus steaming jungles.

Money for space will only come while it generates enthusiasm and participation, and the remote, bureaucratic and slightly incompetent image that the ESA projected during the Huygens landing is actively harmful. When the scientists and the science were put on screen, the clouds lifted: too much of the day was overcast.


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