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Titan – mission accomplished

March 2005

When the Huygens space probe landed on Titan on Friday 14 January 2005 it was hailed as one of the most successful missions in the history of space exploration. This mission, to the largest of Saturn’s thirty-one moons, sought to gather information about Titan’s surface and atmosphere.

The Huygens probe was in essence a robot laboratory, shaped like a seashell, seven feet wide and weighing in at 320 kg. Huygens succeeded in touching down further from the Earth than any previous lander. With an overall price tag exceeding two billion pounds, the success of the mission did not come cheaply.

Short active life

Huygens was launched from Earth aboard its mother-craft Cassini on 15 October 1997. During its circuitous voyage, Cassini-Huygens clocked up almost two and a quarter billion miles as it looped across space to the outer solar system. Although it accelerated to speeds approaching 45,000 mph, the spacecraft still took over seven years to cover the distance to Titan.

Once in Titan’s proximity, the Huygens probe separated from the mother-craft and headed towards its final uncharted destination. Just before entering Titan’s 800-mile-thick atmosphere, Huygens was electronically ‘woken up’ from its dormant state and became completely dependent on its own short-life batteries.

These batteries enabled the probe to gather and transmit information for about four hours before running out. Although the probe’s active life was relatively short, it was the culmination of almost 25 years of planning, preparation and dedication by numerous agencies, scientists and engineers.


During its 2½ hour descent through the murky atmosphere, Huygens snapped hundreds of high-resolution pictures, analysed atmospheric conditions and sent 8kb of data per second to the orbiting Cassini spacecraft.

This information was relayed back to earth by Cassini and (although transmitted at the speed of light) took over an hour to reach us. The transmission signal itself was no more powerful than that of a mobile phone, yet radio telescopes half a billion miles away on Earth had no trouble in picking up the faint, but unmistakable communications.

All in all, in spite of the failure of one of its information channels, Huygens succeeded in its objectives and gathered enough data to almost fill three floppy disks. This abundance of information could keep scientists busy for twenty years as they analyse and interpret the findings.

Resounding success

The resounding scientific and engineering success of the mission has been attributed to the unparalleled degree of multinational collaboration between three different space agencies and seventeen countries.

This sentiment was highlighted by Alphonso Diaz of NASA, who said, ‘It continues to reassure us that people working together in interpersonal relationships that are dedicated to a goal can produce incredible, incredible things. And that’s what’s happened here’.

Besides being a mind-boggling and stimulating read, the account of Cassini-Huygens’ incredible achievement highlights certain key factors which were crucial for the mission’s success.

Firstly, Huygens’ brief spurt of activity on Titan was preceded by decades of planning and preparation. Secondly, the mission was unambiguously costly, both in terms of money and human dedication.

Thirdly, the mission’s objectives were clear, concise and certain. Fourthly, the excellent working relationships, teamwork and co-operation between the participating parties paved the way for the realisation of their unified goal.

The planning

These four key factors are not exclusive to the Cassini-Huygens mission. In fact they can be viewed as general principles inherent in most types of successful enterprises.

Since, as Christians, we are a mission-orientated people, we too can learn and profit by reflecting on these principles in the light of our faith. This is especially true when we reflect on the singularly successful mission of our Saviour Jesus Christ and see these same factors at work.

Firstly, the Scriptures affirm that Christ’s redemptive work on earth was the culmination of God’s planning and foreordination — which in its inception predated the foundation of the world. Even in time, God’s scheme of salvation, executed during the three-year public ministry of Christ, was the fruition of millennia of preparation and patience on God’s part.

The solution to humanity’s rebellion and alienation from God would not be found in a quick fix. It took all the foresight and forbearance of God, as he guided human history inexorably towards Christ — and the chosen time for him to accomplish our deliverance and reconciliation.

The cost

Secondly, as we gaze afresh at Calvary we are left in no doubt about the costliness of Christ’s mission. ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself’, and he gave everything to accomplish that objective.

Grace may be freely given and received, but it is never implemented cheaply. The two billion pound cost of the Huygens project pales into insignificance when measured against the price paid to redeem us from our sins — namely, the precious blood of Jesus Christ shed upon the cross.

Thirdly, Christ’s mission objective was singular and unambiguous. Before his birth it was declared that he would save his people from their sins. Indeed, Paul ably summed up Christ’s mission by stating that ‘Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners’.

Although Christ ministered compas-sionately to the sick, the possessed and the bereaved of his day, his focus remained spiritual and eternal in scope. He allowed no other emphasis to blur his vision or divert him from his path to the cross.

The love and the power

Fourthly, the New Testament leaves us in no doubt that the gospel scheme, though Christocentric in execution, was Trinitarian in its parameters. It was the Father who loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten Son.

It was the Father’s glory that the Son revealed; the Father’s will that the Son obeyed; the Father’s words that the Son spoke; and the Father’s works that the Son performed.

Furthermore, it was by the power of the Holy Spirit that the Son was conceived in the womb, and by the Spirit’s anointing that he ministered and fulfilled his mission in all its aspects. In short, we see the three persons of the Godhead working in total harmony in pursuit of their unified goal.

Looking at Christ’s mission and success in this way helps us, perhaps, to gain a greater appreciation of God’s work of redemption — to the praise of the glory of divine grace.

Ambassadors for Christ

Yet it also throws light on our own mission as Christ’s followers and ambassadors today. For our mission is nothing less than a continuation and promotion of his. If our objective is to preach Christ and his cross — and thus to achieve eternal dividends for his glory — then the principles inherent in Christ’s mission must be evident in our own.

Firstly, we will have to face the fact that there are no quick fixes or short cuts to fruitfulness and productive ministry. No instant spiritual recipes, no matter how well packaged, can substitute for waiting upon the Lord in prayerful submission to his word.

Secondly, we will come to appreciate that successful mission will cost us dearly if it is to have eternal significance. The odd hour or two per week spent sitting in Christian meetings may salve our consciences, but will hardly prevail against the gates of hell.

It is those who pick up their cross, deny themselves and devote themselves to following Christ’s footsteps who will know fruitfulness and spiritual prosperity.

The need for love

Thirdly, we may well have to refocus our objectives to concentrate more on the spiritual and eternal needs of lost humanity. The danger is that we allow the visible and often overwhelming needs around us to set our agenda and shape our mission — rather than follow Christ’s commands.

When the cross of Christ, and his unsearchable riches, become peripheral to our mission and message, we risk losing both our way and our reward.

Fourthly, if we are to make more headway in our mission, then genuine brotherly love, humility, mutual esteem and unified co-operation will have to become more evident. Too often our efforts to extend God’s Kingdom are marred by arrogance, conflict, competition, suspicion and envy between the followers of Christ. This ought not to be.

So, let us learn from the incredible success story of the Huygens space mission. But more importantly, let us learn afresh concerning Christ and the stupendous achievements of his peerless mission on our behalf.

Then let us apply these timeless truths to our own lives and service for him, as we seek to promote his cause in these last days.

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