Saturn – The Cassini Huygens mission
The Cassini-Huygens spacecraft is a dual orbiter and lander currently orbiting Saturn. It was launched from Cape Canaveral on October 15, 1997, entered orbit around Saturn on the July 1, 2004, and had been studying the saturnian system ever since. After two mission extensions, and a grand total of almost 13 years orbiting the giant gas planet, cassini-Huygens mission is now coming to a close.
The European space agency built and operated the Huygens lander, which flew with the Cassini orbiter out to Saturn. Over that time, it has become one of the most successful missions in NASA/ESA history, redefining our understanding of Saturn, its rings, and its moons. As the missions enters its final phase, we look back over where it has been and what it has accompli-shed.
Huygens landed on Titan on the January 14, 2005, the first spacecraft to land on a body in the outer solar system. It gathered and relayed data back to Cassini during descent and for approx. 90 minutes on the surface. Eventually, Cassini went out of ran-ge, and not long after Huygens batteries failed.
From the images related back it app-ears Huygens landed on a surface with a mud – like consistency, how-ever, there was no evidence of large bodies of liq-uid nearby. In subse-quent flybys, Cassini confirmed that Titan does, infact, have massive lakes of methane concentrated near the northern polar region. The combined efforts of Cassini and Huygens have shown there is a full methane cycle on Titan : it’s evaporation, rains and freezes.
It is an ice – moon, with surface enti-rely with thick later ice. Close flybys of the moon by Cassini revealed mas-sive geysers erupting large amounts of liquid water hundreds of kilo-meters into space from the south pole of the moon. Along with other measurements, this confirmed Ence-ladus also has a massive ocean of liquid water below its ice surface. In fact, there is more water on Enceladus than there is on Earth.
Most recently, Casino detected mole-cular hydrogen in water plumes as the spacecraft flew through one of the active geysers. This is important, because the presence of molecular hydrogen indicates the water is rea-cting with rocks at the bottom of Enceladus ocean via hydro-thermal processes. This firmly places Enceladus as one of the best locations to focus a search for life elsewhere in the solar system.
The ring system
Under the scrutinous eyes of Cassini cameras, the rings have proven to be much more complex than originally realized. e. g while the Voyager pro-bes discovered the Keeler Gap, a 42 km gap within the a ring of Saturn, Cassini discovered the moon Daphnis within that gap.
The gravitational effect of the moon not only creates the gap, but also creates beautiful ripple effects at the ring edges. It is likely that most of the gaps in the rings of Saturn, Big or small, are created by tiny moonlets gravitationally carving out their orbit.
Having been flying for almost 20 years, its hard to remember a time without Cassini and Huygens. Unfortu-nately, Cassini has a dwindling fuel supply that it uses to correct its orb-it. If it were to run out, the space-craft would effectively become “dead in the water”. However, unlikely, a dead spacecraft could accidentally crash into the ice-moon Enceladus or the “early Earth” Titan, and possibly contaminate those words with Earth bacteria.
In order to conserve the pristine environments of those moons, the Cassini-Huygens staff have decided to end the mission by crashing it into Saturn itself, where it will burn up in the upper atmosphere. But be-fore doing so, they have planned 22 orbits that pass through the gap between Saturn and its rings, a place no space-craft has ever been.
Some basic facts about Saturn
- Saturn is 6th planet.
- Saturn is made of rings of gas.
- Saturn has storms like wind storms
- Saturn is one of the outer planets.
- Saturn and it’s rings are almost 10 times wider than earth.