Leaving Your Mark on Saturn

If you think it's cool to send messages around the world with the click of a mouse, you might want to try sending one to the ringed planet. The European Space Agency is collecting names and wisdom from the public via the World Wide Web for a CD-ROM time capsule to be placed on board a space probe bound for Saturn later this year.

"A lot of people are very excited," says Jean-Pierre Lebreton, a project scientist with the Huygens-Cassini mission at the European Space Research and Technology Center in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. "This gives people an opportunity to contribute to a space mission."

The probe, to be launched in October, will spend 7 years getting to Saturn on a NASA rocket. Once there, the NASA orbiter will study the planet's magnetic field and rings. The probe itself will aim for Titan, the largest of Saturn's moons. During its descent to the surface, the Huygens probe--named for Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens, who discovered Titan in 1655--will study the atmospheric constituents that give rise to Titan's orange hue, watch the weather, and send back the first images of the moon's veiled surface.

After only a few hours of activity, the probe's batteries will die, leaving behind a silent 343-kilogram memento. But mounted on top of the probe and visible after the heat shield is jettisoned will be the CD-ROM, jammed with up to a million earthly messages--"all sorts of messages," says Lebreton. "Some are very simple; some are profound."

The Web site will accept messages until 1 March.