News Release

Fasten your seat belts -- turbulent lessons from Titan

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Science and Technology Facilities Council

Have you spilled your drink on an airliner? Researchers on both sides of the Atlantic are finding new ways to understand turbulence, both in the Earth's atmosphere and that of Saturn's moon Titan. Turbulence is an important process in our weather, and can be more than an inconvenience; causing hundreds of injuries on commercial flights. Working together, researchers have shown that Huygens had a bumpy ride to Titan and improved the instrumentation that will be used to measure such effects on Earth in future.

Keith Mason, CEO of the Science and Technology Facilities Council said “All planets and moons are subject to the same principles of physics, so working together researchers looking at the Earth and those looking at our planetary neighbours can really test their models of the processes taking place and gain new insights into both.”

Giles Harrison, an atmospheric physicist in the Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading in the UK, devised an inexpensive way of measuring turbulence effects using weather balloons. He extended the standard weather balloon instrument package to include a magnetic field sensor sensitive to the Earth’s magnetic field. With colleague Robin Hogan at Reading, they compared magnetic observations made during a balloon ascent with cloud measurements of turbulence obtained using the nearby Doppler Cloud Radar at Chilbolton, Hampshire.

“We found that turbulent regions observed using the Chilbolton radar coincided with where our balloon’s measurements showed large magnetic changes. As the earth’s magnetic field is very stable, the measurements were showing that the balloon itself was moving violently, in response to air turbulence.” Harrison explained.

Planetary scientist Ralph Lorenz, at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, found Harrison's results the key to making sense of data from the ESA Huygens probe which descended by parachute through Titan's atmosphere in January 2005. An experiment led by The Open University in the UK, the Surface Science Package (SSP), included a set of tilt sensors which measured the motions of the probe during its descent.

In fact, these tilt sensors act much like a drink in a glass, using a small slug of liquid to measure tilt angle. As the probe plummeted at high speed on Titan, there was a lot of buffeting even though the air itself was fairly still. By knowing the particular signature of cloud-induced turbulence in Harrison's Earth balloon data, where the nearby weather radar could document what was causing the turbulence; Lorenz was able to find this signal at Titan despite the buffeting during the Huygens descent.

“The Huygens tilt history was just this long squiggly complex mess, but seeing the fingerprint of cloud turbulence in Harrison's work showed me what to look for” said Lorenz.

Armed with that information, Lorenz found that a 20-minute period of Huygens' 2.5-hour descent, around an altitude of 20km, was affected by this kind of in-cloud turbulence.

Mark Leese, Project Manager for the SSP on Huygens at The Open University said “We knew Huygens had a bumpy ride down to Titan’s surface, now we can separate out twenty minutes of air turbulence – probably due to a cloud layer- from other effects such as cross winds or air buffeting due to the irregular shape of the probe.”

Lorenz had experimented with instrumentation on small models, and even on Frisbees, to understand the dynamics of aerospace vehicles like the probe, and was thus very familiar with the sensors that Harrison was using. He identified a way that Harrison's balloon sensor arrangement could be improved, simply by changing its orientation.

“We went to Titan to learn about that mysterious body and its atmosphere: it's neat that there are lessons from Titan that can be usefully applied here on Earth” said Lorenz.


Notes for Editors

Images – available from Julia Maddock (details below)
Artist’s impressions of Huygens descent, Credit NASA
Artist’s impression of Huygens on Titan, Credit ESA (medium resolution)
Example of a weather balloon, Credit Science and Technology Facilities Council
Chilbolton Observatory, Credit Science and Technology Facilities Council

  • Lorenz's analysis was recently published in the journal Planetary and Space Science, and an exchange of ideas between Lorenz and Harrison appears in the August 2007 issue of Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology (Vol. 24, No. 8, August 2007, pages 1520-1522)
  • Weather balloons carry measuring packages known as radiosondes, which make measurements (soundings) of air temperature, moisture and wind direction used for weather forecasting. The balloons are filled with helium or hydrogen gas and the measurements are sent back to the surface by radio. When the balloon bursts, usually at 15 to 20km altitude, the instruments fall to earth by parachute.
  • The original work by Harrison and Hogan was published last year in the Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology, in a paper subtitled “A compass for a radiosonde”. (Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology 23, 3, 517-523)
  • Harrison's work is supported by the Paul Instrument Fund of the Royal Society, the United Kingdom’s national academy of science; Lorenz is supported by NASA's Cassini Project. The Science and Technology Facilities Council funds UK participation in the Cassini Huygens mission and specifically the research at The Open University.
  • Chilbolton Observatory is part of the Science and Technology Facilities Council and is home to the world’s largest fully steerable meteorological radar. Chilbolton Observatory frequently hosts visiting experiments and research teams from universities and other research organisations, both from the UK and abroad.
  • The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency.

Press Contacts
Julia Maddock
Science and Technology Facilities Council
Tel +44 1793 442094

University of Reading
Walker Institute Communications Manager
Kathy Maskell
Tel 0118 378 8315

Carolina Martinez
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Media Relations
Phone:+1 (818) 354-9382
Fax: +1 (818) 354-4537

Science Contacts
Giles Harrison is away for the w/c August 27th. In his absence contact Robin Hogan.

Robin Hogan
Department of Meteorology
University of Reading Tel +44 118 378 6416

Mark Leese
The Open University
Tel +44 190 865 2561

Dr Ralph D. Lorenz
Space Department, Planetary Exploration Group
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, USA
tel. +1 443-778-2903 fax. 443-778-8939

Jean-Pierre Lebreton
Huygens Mission Manager/Project Scientist
Tel: +31-71 565-3600 (Division secretary, -3595) Mob: + 31 6 4625 1730

The Royal Society
The Royal Society is an independent academy promoting the natural and applied sciences. Founded in 1660, the Society has three roles, as the UK academy of science, as a learned Society, and as a funding agency.

The University of Reading
The Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading is one of the largest and most renowned in the world. With 20 academic staff and over 100 research scientists and students, the department is a centre of excellence in many areas of atmospheric, oceanic and climate research and teaching. See

The Department is an active part of the University's Walker Institute for Climate System Research. The Walker Institute is concerned with understanding our climate, in order to deliver better knowledge of future climate and its impacts for the benefit of society. See

Science and Technology Facilities Council

The Science and Technology Facilities Council ensures the UK retains its leading place on the world stage by delivering world-class science; accessing and hosting international facilities; developing innovative technologies; and increasing the socio-economic impact of its research through effective knowledge exchange partnerships.

The Council has a broad science portfolio including Astronomy, Particle Physics, Particle Astrophysics, Nuclear Physics, Space Science, Synchrotron Radiation, Neutron Sources and High Power Lasers. In addition the Council manages and operates three internationally renowned laboratories:

  • The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Oxfordshire
  • The Daresbury Laboratory, Cheshire
  • The UK Astronomy Technology Centre, Edinburgh

The Council gives researchers access to world-class facilities and funds the UK membership of international bodies such as the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), the Institute Laue Langevin (ILL), European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), the European organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO) and the European Space Agency (ESA). It also contributes money for the UK telescopes overseas on La Palma, Hawaii, Australia and in Chile, and the MERLIN/VLBI National Facility, which includes the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory.

The Council distributes public money from the Government to support scientific research. Between 2007 and 2008 we will invest approximately £678 million.

The Council is a partner in the UK space programme, coordinated by the British National Space Centre.

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