Just a week after Curiosity celebrated its first Martian year in Gale Crater and we have yet another milestone anniversary in Solar System exploration: as of 10:48 p.m. EDT tonight Cassini will have been in orbit around Saturn for a full decade!
“There are times when human language is inadequate, when emotions choke the mind, when the magnitude of events cannot properly be conveyed by the same syllables we use to navigate everyday life. The evening of June 30, 2004 was such a time.”
– Carolyn Porco, Cassini Imaging Team Leader, CICLOPS “Captain’s Log” on June 30, 2014
That’s ten years and over 2 billion miles of discoveries and explorations of our Solar System’s most majestic planet and its incredibly varied family of moons. Over the course of its primary mission and three extended missions, we have been able to get a close-up look at Saturn and its moons like never before, witnessing first-hand the changes that occur as their seasons change. What’s been discovered by the Cassini mission about Saturn has offered invaluable insight into the evolution of our entire Solar System, as well as planets that could be found elsewhere in our galaxy.
“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.”
Launched on October 15, 1997, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft established orbit around Saturn on June 30, 2004 (July 1, UTC).
From a NASA news release:
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.
(Learn more about each of the above discoveries here.)
“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. We’re proud to celebrate a decade of exploring Saturn, and we look forward to many discoveries still to come.”
– Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL
Of course, if you’re like me some of the most exciting parts of the Cassini mission have been the pictures! What amazing views of Saturn, its rings, and its moons we’ve gotten from Cassini… each one a glorious gem in its own right, and thanks to the talent and hard work of the Cassini imaging team at the Space Science Institute (SSI) in Boulder, Colo. the entire world has been able to go along for the ride… and very near literally, too.
If you’d like to relive the experience of Cassini’s ten years at Saturn as a photojournal, visit SSI’s CICLOPS page here and check out the pictures on a month-by-month basis across the entire mission timeline (including some equally incredible images from its previous Jupiter encounter as well!)
You can also see some of the Cassini team’s favorite images from Saturn here, and find out what’s coming up in the next few years as Cassini’s explorations continue!
Here’s to many more discoveries about our Solar System’s very own “lord of the rings!”