Sunday, April 22, 2012


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We know very little about the area of our solar system that contains the planet Saturn. Named for the father of Jupiter in Roman mythology, Saturn was the Roman god of fertility and farming. Hopefully, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft will bring us closer to understanding this very unique planet and its surroundings. On October 15, 17, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft began a fascinating journey, traveling to Saturn by way of Venus, Earth and Jupiter. It will arrive at the Saturn region in July 004 carrying 18 complex science instruments designed to gather data, images and information never before available to scientists on Earth. Once it arrives at Saturn Cassini-Huygens will continue to feed back data until at least the year 008. The first spacecraft designed specifically to investigate the mysterious planet of Saturn as well as its atmosphere, moons and rings, Cassini-Huygens is a complex mission involving a multi-national effort and an innovative design to promote the advancement of space exploration never attempted before. Casinni’s flight operations make up the complicated process of tracking the spacecraft as it makes its journey to Saturn, capturing many images and scientific data along the way.

With its stunning rings and dozens of moons, Saturn is an intriguing planet for many reasons. Barely smaller than Jupiter, it was formed four billion years ago and is comprised mainly of gas. Saturn is also the only planet known to be less dense than water, meaning that if it were placed inside a giant imaginary bathtub, it would float. Saturn has a huge magnetosphere and a stormy atmosphere, with winds clocked as high as 1,800 kilometers per hour near its equator.

Of the 0 known moons orbiting Saturn, Titan is the largest. Larger than the planet Mercury and Earth’s own moon, Titan is of particular interest to scientist because it is the only moon in the solar system with its own atmosphere. However, what sets Saturn apart from the rest of the planets in the solar system, are its majestic rings. These unique rings comprised of billions of ice and rock particles, vary in size from small debris to boulders as big as houses. Another unusual phenomenon is the fact that these rings orbit Saturn at varying speeds. Hundreds of these rings are believed to be pieces of shattered comets, asteroids or moons that broke apart before they reached the planet. The rings are so massive at 450,000 miles in diameter; they would fill the distance between Earth and our moon.

For centuries, Saturn and its rings puzzled observers. One discoverer in particular, Galileo, was the first to use a telescope to explore the wonders of the heavens and, as a result, could not understand why Saturn looked different in the night sky at varying times of observation. We now know that this phenomenon occurs because our view of Saturn’s rings changes. Because of this, when the rings face the edge of the Earth, they are virtually invisible. Conversely, they seem to reappear months later when our angle of view changes. Despite major advances in lens technology since Galileo’s time, many questions remain unanswered. Hopefully, Cassini’s mission will help us answer many of them.

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The Cassini-Huygens mission is composed of two elements the Cassini orbiter that will orbit Saturn and its moons for four years, and the Huygens Probe that will eventually dive into the murky atmosphere of Titan and land on its surface. The sophisticated instruments onboard these spacecrafts will provide scientists with vital data to help them understand this mysterious, vast region.

Three international space agencies and seventeen nations contributed to building the spacecrafts. The Cassini orbiter was built and managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, having been named for Jean-Dominique Cassini, a 17th- and 18th-century French astronomer whose discoveries included the gaps in Saturns rings. Named for Christian Huygens, the 17th-century Dutch astronomer who discovered Saturns rings and first observed Titan in 1655, the Huygens probe was built by the European Space Agency. The Italian Space Agency provided Cassini’s high-gain communication antenna. More than 00 scientists worldwide will study the data being collected during this mission.

The last of the big-budget, big-mission planetary probes, Cassini-Huygens stands over two stories tall and weighs more than six tons. At $.4 billion, its budget dwarfs the Mars Pathfinder and Mars Global Surveyor missions. In the tradition of Viking, Voyager and Galileo, Cassini’s mission is ambitious. If all goes according to plan, it will travel some . billion miles over more than a decade carrying 18 complex science instruments and dispatching a probe dubbed Huygens to the surface of Titan.

Cassini would likely have fallen prey to budget cuts if not for the emphasis on space exploration as a venue for international cooperation. The Huygens probe, built by the European Space Agency, also helped fund the project. In addition, valuable experimental equipment was provided by ASI, the Italian Space Agency.

The sheer distance of the mission is perhaps the most daunting challenge Cassini’s designers faced. More than half of Cassini’s liftoff weight is fuel. It was propelled into orbit by a Titan IVB/Centaur rocket, the largest expandable booster in the U.S. space fleet. The spaceship will circle Venus twice, come back to orbit the Earth and then circle Jupiter, using each of the planets’ gravity to “slingshot” it to Saturn at higher speeds than it could reach with its engines alone.

After some 15 years of planning, the $.4 billion Cassini mission to Saturn is one of the most complex and ambitious ventures in the history of space exploration. The U.S.-European joint venture, still over a year from completion, is also one of the most controversial, having provoked the largest, most strident crusade against a nuclear-powered spacecraft.

A small but vociferous group of anti-nuclear activists are questioning the substance powering Cassini, 7 pounds of highly radioactive, highly carcinogenic Plutonium 8. Although the United States has launched some two dozen nuclear powered spacecrafts since 161, this will be the largest amount of plutonium ever rocketed into space.

Cassini’s critics, fearing a radioactive shower in the event of an explosion during the October 15th launch, vowed to disrupt the event. However, there was little chance of that threat succeeding as security was extremely tight for the launch. At Launch Complex 40 the seaside pad provided a natural shelter for the massive Titan B rocket which resembled a virtual fortress for the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft. Therefore, antinuclear protestors could do little more than watch as the Cassini spacecraft safely blasted off against a moonlit, pre dawn sky from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Station.

Still, activists felt the danger was far from over. Opponents also said they were terrified of the Earth fly-by on August 18, 1, a maneuver designed to give the explorer gravity assistance to slingshot it toward Saturn. Protestors contended if the probe came too close, it could have re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere at 4,000 mph and vaporized, releasing plutonium. While NASA insisted that any fallout from an accident would have posed a minimum risk, anti nuclear activists, pacifists and even a retired space safety officer banded together to expose what they believed were government lies. They felt that if the rocket had accidentally plunged into the atmosphere during the fly-by, lethal plutonium would have been spread onto Earth. Obviously, they were wrong about this.

Even prior to Cassini’s arrival on Saturn, the spacecraft has revealed images and information from other parts of the solar system. En route to Saturn in 000 it passed by Jupiter, the location of the Great Red Spot and had a good view of the planets North Pole where there appeared to be nothing unusual--just ordinary polar clouds. Suddenly, the Great Dark Spot emerged which grew into an oval the size of the Great Red Spot itself. The Great Dark Spot appears to be a haze of hydrocarbon-rich droplets floating in the uppermost layers of Jupiters stratosphere that can only be seen in Ultra Violet light.

Hopefully this mission will continue to be error free and Cassini-Huygen will provide the valuable information needed to study Saturn, its atmosphere as well as its moons and rings when it arrives July of 004.




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