When the Cassini spacecraft sped by Saturn's largest moon, Titan, Tuesday in the early hours of the European morning, rocket scientists like Claudio Sollazzo weren't the only ones getting excited.
In the years since Dr. Sollazzo began working with the European Space Agency (ESA), questions from workaday Europeans were typically unvarying - and they were not about distant comets or the vistas of Martian landscapes.
"The first thing they used to ask me was how much it all cost," says ESA's Italian operations manager.
Not anymore. Last month, the Euro- pean-built Huygens probe floated down through Titan's screaming winds and dim light into a place where, scientists suggest, liquid methane falls as rain, courses in cataracts through canyons of water-ice walls, and flows into wide seas.
"Now," Sollazzo says, "even my local baker is excited."
Tuesday marks Cassini's first flight past Titan since it dispatched the Huygens probe. It also serves as an exclamation point on a mission that proved that Europe - long overshadowed by its American and Russian counterparts - has finally established itself as a leader in space exploration.
The Huygens mission was "very significant for the European Space Agency," says Bruce Betts of the Planetary Society in Pasadena, Calif. "ESA hasn't had as long a history or as a high a profile [as NASA or the Russian program] ... but this will help with that."
ESA isn't resting on Huygens's laurels. Later this year, it will launch Venus Express, the first orbiter of our closest planetary neighbor in more than a decade. Early next decade, the Rosetta and BepiColombo spacecraft are expected to dispatch first-ever probes to land on a comet and on Mercury, respectively. And there is already chatter at ESA mission control about returning to Titan - this time with rovers.
Whether or not it happens, it is a sign of the agency's new confidence. "ESA is becoming a bit more like the Americans," says Sollazzo. "We are proud of what we've done, and that has helped management high up become a bit bolder recently."
It's an attitude that belies the modest appearance of ESA mission control here in Darmstadt, 25 miles south of Frankfurt. Wedged between an autobahn on-ramp and the town's main train station, the European Space Operations Center looks more like a basic office park than the endpoint for some of the world's most significant space science.
But ESA has always been about making more with less. Its 15 member nations contribute to a $3.5 …