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Science
THE MATERIAL WORLD
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Thursday 16:30-17:00
Quentin Cooper reports on developments across the sciences. Each week scientists describe their work, conveying the excitement they feel for their research projects.
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Listen to 14 September
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QUENTIN COOPER
Quentin Cooper
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Thursday 14 September 2006
Surface of Titan (picture credit: European Space Agency)
Surface of Titan (courtesy of European Space Agency)

“I’m on the Plane!”

Those are words to sink the hearts of peace-loving travellers.

At present, mobile phone use is banned on planes on safety grounds, but surveillance equipment shows that many frequent fliers ignore the rule.

So are mobile phones a genuine threat to air safety or just to airlines’ income from their own in-flight phones? Surely it’s OK to leave your phone switched on if you don’t actually make a call?

No, says Bill Strauss, who researches electromagnetic compatibility in the USA.  He points out that your mobile will send out stronger and stronger signals to try to stay in touch with phone masts on the ground.

If US and European phones on the same flight both do so, they produce interference on the same frequency as the plane uses for its GPS navigation equipment. There is circumstantial evidence of occasions where the GPS has been 150 miles off course, perhaps as a result.

Even electronic equipment not intended for communications, such as music players and games consoles can produce interference at critical frequencies, the research shows.

But there could be ways round these problems and some airlines have plans to introduce their own in-flight mobile phones systems using what are called picocells. Paul Guckian is working on them at Qualcomm in the USA, European companies are also developing the technology.

The idea is to keep the signals low, effectively by flying a mini phone mast in the plane. But each plane must pass stringent safety tests for electrical interference and quite a few passengers may have objections to the audio interference!

Landing on Titan

On January 14th 2005, after a journey of more than seven years, the European Huygens spacecraft parachuted down onto the surface of Saturn's largest moon, Titan. With the American parent craft, Cassini, still in orbit around Saturn, this is possibly the most ambitious interplanetary mission ever attempted.

We hear the latest from Professor Marty Tomasko of the University of Arizona, who was in charge of Huygens' camera, and Professor John Zarnecki of the Open University, whose team built the surface science package.

Such missions are always risky, and there was the possibility that the years of waiting would be for nothing.

The scientists hoped that there would be a stream of data from the parachute drop through Titan's hazy atmosphere. If they were lucky, they might get a few minutes of data from the ground. In fact Huygens was still transmitting several hours later, after Cassini had passed over the horizon and could no longer hear it.

The results reveal a strange world indeed. Titan is the only body we know, apart from Earth, to have a nitrogen atmosphere. In fact it is rather like a primitive, lifeless Earth, held in deep, deep freeze, far from the Sun.

Huygens detected a fine drizzle of liquid methane, and there's evidence in the landscape that methane rivers sometimes flow into lakes of liquid natural gas. 
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