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
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
"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
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
But ESA has always been about making more with less. Its 15
member nations contribute to a $3.5 billion annual budget - less
than one-quarter of NASA's $16 billion allocation. …