The flagship mission to Saturn was launched on Oct 15, 1997 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, as one of the most ambitious initiatives in planetary space exploration. The sophisticated spacecraft began its extraordinary orbiting journey to discover Saturn’s system in details. The robotic spacecraft carried a probe called Huygens, which descended to the Saturn’s largest satellite, Titan in January 2005. Having completed its four year principle mission, Cassini embarked on a journey to perform dozens of flybys of Saturn’s satellites such as the Titan, Enceladus, Aegaeo, Dione, Rhea, Atlas and its other icy moons to celebrate its 10th anniversary of arrival at Saturn in June 2014. The first extension of the project, called the “Cassini Equinox Mission” came in September 2010 followed by the second allowance known as the “Cassini Solstice Mission”, where the spacecraft has been making exciting novel discoveries.
The breathtaking mission is all set to conclude its epic journey with its final plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere in just about a week from now, dated as Sep 15, 2017.
How it all started: The origin of the Cassini- Huygens Mission dates back to 1982, when the “European Science Foundation” and the “American National Academy of Sciences” formed an experts group to investigate the future cooperative missions. The joint possible mission of the Saturn Orbiter and Titan Probe came as a suggestion from two European scientists. In 1983, the Solar System Exploration Committee of NASA recommended pairing of Orbiter and Probe as a core NASA project. A joint study conducted by ESA and NASA was conducted from 1984 to 1985. While ESA continued its further study, American astronaut Sally Ride examined and approved of the Cassini Mission in her influential report: “NASA Leadership and America’s Future in Space” in 1987. Despite streaming political strains between American and European Space programs, the project ensued smoothly after 1994.
“The Cassini-Huygens Visit to Saturn”, authored by Michael Meltzer delineates interesting aspects of the spacecraft’s journey including ideation and planning; it also addressed the political processes involved in staging the show and covers engineering and developmental aspects of the aircraft. The book unfolds the splendid discoveries from the mission in its course of 2.2 billion mile space voyage from Earth to the “Ringed” beauty. The Cassini Huygens mission required innovative technical leaps to be assembled. The multifaceted spacecraft had to be reliably operated while it orbited Saturn, so far from Earth. The Galileo mission to Jupiter and other deep space initiatives had its own contributions in laying the evolutionary path of this healthy spacecraft design. The mission enabled the collection of voluminous and exemplar scientific data, discovered as absolute scientific treasuries. The finding uncovered satellites perceived as dead piece of rock to contain a warm underground sea with the potential of harbouring life. Moreover, Titan, Saturn’s largest moon revealed its self-worth with lakes, fluvial channels and dunes that closely replicate our very own planet, except that those lakes are filled with hydrocarbons instead of water.
The masterminds behind Cassini program:
The Cassini project is a historic international collaborative effort primarily involving “NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian space agency, Agenzia Spaziale Italiana (ASI), as well as several separate European academic and industrial contributors.” Development of the Huygens Titan probe was managed by the European Space Technology and Research Center. The Center’s prime contractor, Alcatel in Cannes, France, “assembled the probe with equipment supplied by many European countries.”
Prior to acknowledging the team, it’s significant to recognise the prominent inspiration behind the mission’s origin. The Saturn Orbiter was named after “Jean-Domenique Cassini”, who discovered its satellite Lapetus in 1671, Rhea in 1672, and both Tethys and Dione in 1684. In 1675, Jean-Domenique discovered the “Cassini Division”, referred to as the narrow gap separating Saturn’s rings into two parts. Simultaneously, the Titan probe was named Huygens in honour of the Dutch genius, “Christiaan Huygens”, who discovered Titan in 1655.
At present, the mission is manned by 260 scientists from around 17 countries dedicated to study and gain an enhanced understanding of ringed planet, its rings, moons and all about the magnetosphere.
People behind the grandeur of Cassini-Huygens:
In the US, the program mission is managed for NASA’s Office of Space Science by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, California. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology, where Earl Maize is the Cassini Program Manager and Linda J. Spilker is the Cassini Project Scientist. Scott. G. Edgington is the deputy project scientist at the JPL.
Earl H. Maize is the Cassini Programme Manager, is an expert in Applied Mathematics, Astronomy and Astrophysics
The Cassini mission’s discoveries seem to have revolutionized our understanding of Saturn, its complex rings, the unique assortment of moons and the planet’s dynamic magnetic environment. Findings such as the icy jets shoot from Enceladus, Titan’s hydrocarbon sea beds dominated by liquid ethane and methane, presence of complex pre-biotic chemicals in the atmosphere highlights its contribution to the stellar discoveries in the realm of space science.
The partnership of US and Europe in this space mission made sense for several reasons. As Cassini takes its final plunge into Saturn, Dr. Linda Spilker, Cassini Project Scientist, will be presenting highlights of Cassini’s ambitious inquiry at Saturn along with an overview of scientific observations. Dr. Earl Maize, Cassini Program Manager, will be discussing Cassini’s exciting challenge that has managed its astral expedition flying through a region where no spacecraft has ever flown before. The team has been inviting enthusiasts to hear narrations of recent science discoveries in the light of the anticipated excitement around Cassini’s final orbits.
Several uploaded videos, that combine animation and actual imagery, exhibit team members’ reflection on what makes the Cassini mission such an epic journey.
This article is a tribute to the man made satellite that changed the phase of science and NASA. The grandeur of the Saturn and it’s moons as revealed by Cassini changed the future of space missions and gave scope to many exciting missions further on. The final journey to Saturn: The Grand Finale is about to plunge into Saturn in hours. You can watch the live feed of Cassini at NASA feed.
Friday, Sept. 15, 6:30 a.m. EDT: Live feed of Cassini mission’s “Grand Finale”. An uninterrupted, clean feed of cameras from JPL Mission Control, with mission audio only, on the NASA TV Media Channel and on Ustream.
Article by Rochita.