Monday, August 4, 2014

The Cassini Mission to Saturn: Alive and Well

Cassini-Huygens is the largest interplanetary spacecraft ever launched by NASA which took place at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on October 15, 1997.  Its mission is to study Saturn and its moons, especially Titan. Almost a seven year journey, it arrived at its destination on July 1, 2004 and has already completed its first mission. Cassini will orbit Saturn at least 76 times in its objective to study five main areas: Saturn’s atmosphere and the interior, the rings, the magnetic environment, icy moons, with a special interest in Titan. It was a group effort by NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Italian Space Agency.   
So, what is so intriguing about the moon Titan? Well, it’s Saturn’s largest moon and the second largest moon in our solar system, next to Jupiter’s giant moon, Ganymede. The most interesting thing about Titan is that it has an atmosphere, lakes, rivers and dunes, but its bedrock is made of ice as cold as -292F, eroded by rivers of liquid methane. I’m not a chemist, but from what I’ve read in my research, methane and ethane are simple hydrocarbon molecules that can assemble themselves into amazingly complex structures. Titan has both of these elements. Since complex hydrocarbon molecules form the basis of life on Earth could the chemistry on Titan have caused them to cross-over and form some type of life?
Some facts about the Cassini Mission:
·        Cassini traveled 2.175 billion miles on its way to Saturn.

·        It takes about 1hr and 20 minutes for the radio signals to reach Earth.

·        Cassini gets its power from three radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTG’s) which  consists of a source of heat and a system to convert that heat into electricity.    

·        Saturn is about 75% hydrogen and 25% helium with other trace elements.

·        Saturn’s rings are mostly water ice particles with some rock mixed in.

·        Saturn’s surface gravity is 107% of that of Earth.

·        One day on Saturn is 10.2 Earth hours long. A year is 29.46 Earth years long.

·        Saturn has about 60 moons and counting.

·        Saturn has an interior heat source that produces 87% more energy than the planet absorbs from the sun. Is Saturn still forming (like a star) and using this energy to do so?  
The mission was extended in September of 2010 and called the Cassini Equinox Mission. Since the craft is still healthy, scientists have again extended the mission until September 2017. They now call it the Cassini Solstice Mission. This will allow it to continue to study Saturn into its Summer Solstice of May 2017. Hopefully we will find out more interesting facts about Saturn.  

More about the Cassini Solstice Mission at:
My sources:, European Space Agency, Daily Galaxy, LASP Colorado Outreach Education, and the California Science Center.

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