Wednesday, October 17, 2012

NASA's Cassini Space Probe at Saturn celebrates 15 years in space

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NASA’s Cassini spacecraft marked 15 years in space Monday (Oct. 15), and the well-traveled probe won’t prevent studying Saturn and its many moons anytime soon.

Cassini has logged more than 3.8 billion miles since its launch on Oct. 15, 1997, researchers said. The spacecraft has made many contributions since arriving at Saturn in July 2004, including discovering water-ice geysers on the moon Escalades and snapping the primary views of the hydrocarbon lakes on Saturn’s biggest moon Titan.

During its time in space, the Cassini probe has sent home about 444 gigabytes of systematic data, including more than 300,000 images. Researchers have published more than 2,500 documents based on Cassini data so far, NASA officials said.

Cassini’s operators have sent it to call more than a dozen of Saturn’s 60-plus moons in the last eight years, and they sometimes ask the probe to find shots of the planet’s poles. Planning out such a pushy flight path is difficult, particularly given the gravitational influences of Saturn’s moons and Cassini’s incomplete fuel supply, mission managers said.

In November 2016, the probe will embark on a sequence of orbits that take it ever faster to Saturn. These orbits will begin just exterior Saturn's F ring, the outermost of the major rings, researchers said.

In April 2017, a close meet with Titan will throw Cassini on a pathway that will take it in Saturn’s innermost ring, just a hair away from the top of the huge planet’s atmosphere. Cassini will build 22 such close passes, and then a gravitational tug from a last, distant flyby of Titan will seal the spacecraft’s fate. It will crash into Saturn on Sept. 15, 2017.

The $3.2 billion Cassini-Huygens task is a collaboration involving NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Cassini spacecraft ferried a probe called Huygens, which landed on Titan in January 2005. Huygens survived its thrust through the enormous moon’s broad atmosphere and sent information back to Earth for about 90 minutes after moving down.

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