A Decade of Discovery in Saturn’s System: The Great Cassini

It is sometimes difficult to attach an adequate number of superlatives to the Cassini probe, which is about to enter its second decade of operations in the Saturn system.  From launching the Huygens lander, to revealing Titan’s hydrocarbon seas and the ice geysers of Enceladus, Cassini has been much more than a probe.  In many ways, although it holds no crew, Cassini has been a ship of discovery which has earned a place alongside names Endeavour, Resolution and Beagle. Some of its many accomplishments are detailed in the NASA release included below.

There are two bittersweet items to this particular anniversary story.  The first is the simple fact that despite its myriad accomplishments, NASA has absolutely nothing  in the works in terms of a mission which compares favorably with Cassini, and could be considered a worthy successor to it.

Juno is on the way to Jupiter for a one year mission, and New Horizons is on the way to a flyby of Pluto next July, and after that, possibly a flyby of Kuiper belt object, but that is all it is, a flyby.  And, although NASA has received preliminary funding for a proposed “Europa Clipper” mission to Jupiter’s enigmatic moon, it likely would not launch until 2025, and even then not arriving until after a cruise of more than six years.  As of the moment, the Europa Clipper, which would in reality be orbiting Jupiter, is still likely to be a comparatively paltry solar powered spacecraft.  By comparison, Cassini is a veritable dreadnought. 

The second item is perhaps minor, possibly petty, certainly unlikely, and also probably not of great concern to many. At the end of its mission, Cassini will be sent in to a death plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere in order to prevent the extremely remote chance that it will instead crash into Titan, or perhaps another moon, and even more remotely, contaminate it with Earth borne organisms which have survived the long journey, longer stay and all that radiation.  While it will no doubt continue to send back useful data until the very last second, this ship deserves better.

NASA previously examined a number of End of Mission (EOM) options, from crashing into one of the icy Moons, to seeking a stable orbit around Titan or even a carefully engineered ejection from the Saturn system altogether with the slim possibility of a Jupiter flyby. Planetary protection issues are a noteworthy precaution, but sometimes it seems NASA has an altogether unholy fascination with destroying the objects it creates. Perhaps its the whole V’Ger thing.

One wishes NASA might have elected to leave Cassini in a stable orbit,  awaiting the day we can retrieve the history making craft and and provide her a proper home, either back on Earth, or in some yet to be envisioned orbital museum. Far fetched perhaps, but consider the implication. Is our confidence in humanity’s future in space so low that the certainty of destruction is preferable?

NASA News Story

It has been a decade since a robotic traveler from Earth first soared over rings of ice and fired its engine to fall forever into the embrace of Saturn. On June 30, the Cassini mission will celebrate 10 years of exploring the planet, its rings and moons.
The Cassini spacecraft, carrying the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe, arrived in the Saturn system on June 30, 2004, for a four-year primary mission. Since 2008, NASA has granted the mission three extensions, allowing scientists an unprecedented opportunity to observe seasonal changes as the planet and its retinue completed one-third of their nearly 30-year-long trek around the sun.

“Having a healthy, long-lived spacecraft at Saturn has afforded us a precious opportunity,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “By having a decade there with Cassini, we have been privileged to witness never-before-seen events that are changing our understanding of how planetary systems form and what conditions might lead to habitats for life.”

After 10 years at Saturn, the stalwart spacecraft has beamed back to Earth hundreds of gigabytes of scientific data, enabling the publication of more than 3,000 scientific reports. Representing just a sampling, 10 of Cassini’s top accomplishments and discoveries are:

— The Huygens probe makes first landing on a moon in the outer solar system (Titan)

— Discovery of active, icy plumes on the Saturnian moon Enceladus

— Saturn’s rings revealed as active and dynamic — a laboratory for how planets form

— Titan revealed as an Earth-like world with rain, rivers, lakes and seas

— Studies of Saturn’s great northern storm of 2010-2011

— Studies reveal radio-wave patterns are not tied to Saturn’s interior rotation, as previously thought

— Vertical structures in the rings imaged for the first time

— Study of prebiotic chemistry on Titan

— Mystery of the dual, bright-dark surface of the moon Iapetus solved

— First complete view of the north polar hexagon and discovery of giant hurricanes at both of Saturn’s poles

“It’s incredibly difficult to sum up 10 extraordinary years of discovery in a short list, but it’s an interesting exercise to think about what the mission will be best remembered for many years in the future,” Spilker said.

Further details about each of these top-10 discoveries are available at:

http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/news/cassinifeatures/10thannivdiscoveries/

In celebration of the 10th anniversary, members of the Cassini team selected some of their favorite images for a gallery, describing in their own words what makes the images special to them. The gallery is available at:

http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/news/cassinifeatures/10thannivimages/

While Cassini was originally approved for a four-year study of the Saturn system, the project’s engineers and scientists had high hopes that the mission might carry on longer, and designed the system for endurance. The spacecraft has been remarkably trouble-free, and from an engineering standpoint, the main limiting factor for Cassini’s lifetime now is how much propellant is left in its tanks. The mission owes a great deal of its longevity to skillful and efficient piloting by the mission’s navigation and operations teams.

“Our team has done a fantastic job optimizing trajectories to save propellant, and we’ve learned to operate the spacecraft to get the most out of it that we possibly can,” said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL. “We’re proud to celebrate a decade of exploring Saturn, and we look forward to many discoveries still to come.”

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

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