SPOKANE, Wash. - David Atkinson spent 18 years designing an experiment for the unmanned space mission to Saturn. Now some pieces of it are lost in space.
Someone forgot to turn on the instrument Atkinson needed to measure the winds on Saturn's largest moon.
"The story is actually fairly gruesome," the University of Idaho scientist said. "It was human error - the command to turn the instrument on was forgotten."
The mission to study Saturn and its moons was launched in 1997 from Cape Canaveral, a joint effort by NASA, the European agency and the Italian space agency. Last Friday, Huygens, the European space probe sent to the surface of Saturn's moon Titan, transmitted the first detailed pictures of the frozen surface.
Atkinson and his team were at European space headquarters in Darmstadt, Germany, waiting for their wind measurements to arrive.
The probe was to transmit data on two channels, A and B, Atkinson said. His Doppler wind experiment was to use Channel A, a very stable frequency.
But the order to activate the receiver for Channel A was never sent, so the entire mission operated through Channel B, which is less stable, Atkinson said.
Most of his team has returned home, but Atkinson has remained in Germany because he still has a task to perform - reconstructing the entry and descent trajectory of the probe.
There is hope that some of his data survived.
"We do have Channel B data and although driven by a very poor and unstable oscillator, we may be able to get a little bit of data," he said.
Even so, he said the mission was a huge success, and the Europeans were thrilled with the success of the mission.
"In total, the core of our team has invested something like 80 man years on this experiment, 18 of which are mine," Atkinson said. "I think right now the key lesson is this - if you're looking for a job with instant and guaranteed success, this isn't it."