Target: Saturn is the mission of the Cassini/Huygens spacecraft to the ringed planet, Saturn. Here are some facts about the mission and other places you can find information. When you are ready, click back to return to the Space Center or click below to explore again. Click here to go back to the Saturn Facts page.
Launched in 1997, the Cassini/Huygens mission has arrived at Saturn. Cassini began orbiting the planet on July 1, 2004, and released its piggybacked Huygens probe about six months later in January, 2005, for descent through the thick atmosphere of the moon Titan. The Huygens probe, supplied by the European Space Agency (ESA), studied the clouds, atmosphere, and surface of Saturn's moon Titan. It was designed to enter and brake in Titan's atmosphere and parachute down to the surface.
The image at left, taken in October, 2002, shows the rings in shadow and the moon, Titan, in the upper left corner. Click on image or here for larger view. The planet was 285 million kilometers (177 million miles) away from the spacecraft, about two times the distance between Earth and the Sun. It would take about 22 "Earth's" placed in a row to reach from one end of the rings to the other. NASA/JPL/Southwest Research Institute image.
The Cassini Orbiter has been taking measurements of the atmosphere, winds, magnetic field and lightning, temperature, and structure of Saturn. As the mission continues it will also study the rings and icy satellites in the planet system, including Titan. The orbiter stands 6.8 meters (22.3 feet) high, and its maximum diameter of the high-gain antenna (HGA) primary reflector, is 4 meters (13.1 feet). The orbiter carries 687 kg (1515 lbs) of science instruments, including the Huygens probe system. The spacecraft has a mass of 5,634 kg (12,421 lbs).
While passing Jupiter the spacecraft's instruments were turned toward the giant planet. Cassini made its closest pass to Jupiter, about 10 million kilometers (6 million miles), on Dec. 30, 2000, and proceeded toward its ultimate destination at Saturn. The Galileo Mission was still in progress and the two spacecraft studied the planet and its moon Io. Galileo passed closer to Io for higher-resolution images, and Cassini acquired images at ultraviolet wavelengths, better for detecting active volcanic plumes. The small black dot in the lower center of the image at left is the shadow of another of Jupiter's moons. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
In the image at right the moon, Io, can be seen above Jupiter's clouds. Io is about the size of Earth's moon and is over 350,000 km away from the planet. At the same distance our Earth would appear to fit between the brown upper and lower bands of clouds! It would take 11 Earths lined up in a row to cross the huge gas planet. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
The Cassini ultraviolet images revealed two gigantic, actively erupting plumes of gas and dust coming from volcanoes on Io. The moon is the most volcanically active body in the solar system. It is estimated that one of the eruptions produced more ash than the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington. Other images from Cassini can be seen at the Cassini Imaging Team website.
The Huygens Probe was designed to enter the atmosphere of Titan, the largest of Saturn's moons. The moon is covered in clouds and hazy layers of nitrogen and other gases. The thickest layer forms a dark ring at the north pole of Titan. The surface may have lakes of liquid methane but the data is still being studied. The NASA/JPL image below is an artist's idea of how the probe was slowed by a parachute.
NASA/JPL described the probe this way:
"The Huygens atmospheric structure instrument will analyze features such as temperature, pressure and lightning at different layers of Titan's atmosphere. Instruments named the gas chromatograph mass spectrometer and the aerosol collector and pyrolyser will work in tandem to collect, break down and identify particles and gases, including organic chemicals in the atmosphere. The descent imager/spectral radiometer will take pictures and spectra of the atmosphere and surface. The Doppler wind experiment will track how winds carry the probe... And the surface science package will investigate physical properties of Titan's surface."
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