Monday, 18 September 2017

Twenty years of Cassini

On October 15th, 1997, a Titan IV rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, carrying a Flagship-class spacecraft named Cassini. For just under twenty years, Cassini, and its companion probe Huygens, travelled through space and set up home in the Saturnian system, until it was deliberately crashed into Saturn's atmospheric sea on September 15th, 2017.

A collaborative mission between NASA (who created and launched the orbiter, Cassini), the European Space Agency (who developed the probe Huygens and the bulk of its technology) and the Italian Space Agency (who provided Cassini's telemetry and radiocommunication equipment), the Cassini project took fifteen years to move from initial concept to launch. Originally scheduled to end in 2008, the Cassini mission was extended with the Cassini Equinox mission, and again in 2010, with the Cassini Solstice mission, before it was carefully and deliberately destroyed in its final plunge.

In its early years, the spacecraft made a flyby of Venus, looped back round and took some test photos of Earth's Moon, using the gravity of this flyby to boost towards the outer solar system. After three years in space, Cassini made a flyby of the asteroid Masursky, followed by a flyby of Jupiter, collecting the most detailed images ever of the great planet. While between Jupiter and Saturn, tests were made using radio signals to and from the spacecraft, which further proved the effects predicted by Einstein's theory of gravity. In 2004, Cassini reached its destination, entering Saturnian orbit and passing through the planets outermost rings, taking shots of several moons in the journey. Two new moons - named Methone and Pallene - were discovered, while the spacecraft made flybys of the largest moon, Titan.

At the very beginning of 2005, the Huygens probe landed on Titan, sending back telemetry as it did so. It revealed a world of icy "rocks" and marshes of liquid hydrocarbons, a strange, frozen inversion of Earth, the first time we could look beneath the dense, clouded atmosphere. Over the following years, Cassini continued to travel throughout the Saturnian system, making flybys of moons, and sending back new and surprising data, such as the revelation of water systems on Enceladus. It also sent back some of the most detailed, surprising and beautiful images of the great ringed planet itself. Over the two decades of its service, multiple fixes and adjustments were made by the mission control team remotely from Earth.

To that team, the mission's designers, and the spacecraft itself: I salute you.

The Earth, from Saturn.

See some of the most breathtaking images from the mission here at

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