The Cassini-Huygens era
how does an astronomer work?
In July 2004 the Cassini mission finally arrived at Saturn and entered into orbit around the planet, visiting the whole system. Even our wildest models and speculations hadn’t prepared us for what we’ve seen since then with instruments performing beyond our expectations. During one freezing cold night, on 15 January 2005, at Darmstadt, ESA’s Ccontrol Center in Germany, “we heard the baby cry” as Jean-Pierre Lebreton announced after the successful descent and landing of the Huygens probe. The images and all the data returned by that probe, the farthest landed man-made machine, are extraordinary and have taught us so much. Since then, many scientists and engineers around the world have participated in this extraordinary adventure by processing and analyzing the huge amount of data returned by the mission. The orbiter’s lifetime has been extended to 2017, so I’ll be busy for quite some time more. … When I think how the Voyager flyby of 1980 allowed me, a decade later, to do research not only during my Ph.D. but also for years afterwards, I have no doubt that the Cassini-Huygens data will keep several future generations of astronomers busy.
We mainly work in front of a computer if the data come from space missions. We wait for the data to be retrieved and processed at the different instruments centers. They are then sent to the team, where the people are called “co-investigators”. Each one of these has a specific expertise and a task and so they work on the data from a given point of view and produce results which are then published in a scientific journal.
If, on the other hand, we go observing at a big telescope somewhere, we then do the observations ourselves, bring back the data on a CDROM and then process them and analyze them ourselves at our institute.
It is extremely rewarding both ways, observing on a clear night from the top of a large telescope in Hawaii or Chile, or watching in awe as a space mission arrives and turns on the instruments that then send you back all the wonderful images, spectra and other data, are among the most wonderful experiences in my life…