Cassini Spacecraft's Valley Connection

By: Jarrod Aldom
By: Jarrod Aldom

Scientists say they're in shock over some of the super-detailed images coming back from Saturn, courtesy of the just-arrived Cassini probe.

NASA Today unveiled images taken as the $3 billion probe made its closest pass by the planet's rings. And even though the probe is more than two billion miles from Earth, it has a connection to someone here in the Valley. Harrisonburg resident Hazel Campbell and her family were able to see the craft before it took off in 1997, three of only five people to do so.

"He (my daughter's friend) told me to watch the middle of 2004, that I would see it on TV," says Campbell. "And this has been very fascinating to me to know that that's up there and I saw it. I really saw it. I touched it."

This is just the beginning of the Saturn trip for Cassini. It will take photos of the planet and its moons for the next four years.

Extended Web Coverage

The Cassini Mission to Saturn

Mission Objectives

  • The spacecraft has a series of science objectives in five areas: Saturn, the rings, Titan, other icy satellites and the planet's magnetosphere.

  • For the planet itself, Cassini will examine the atmosphere and cloud features and try to learn what Saturn was like during its formation and evolution.

  • The spacecraft will also look at the composition and structure of the planet's famous rings, and investigate their interaction with moons.

  • The largest moon, Titan, will get much attention, with a visit from the Huygens probe in January 2005. Science objectives include determining the components of its atmosphere, and figuring out how the moon and its atmosphere may have formed. The mission also aims to solve the mystery of Titan's surface, determining if it's liquid or solid, and if there is a bright continent, as indicated in Hubble Space Telescope images taken in 1994.

  • The Cassini spacecraft will also investigate several of the system's icy moons, determining how they were formed, what they're made of and how they interact with the rest of the system.

  • Finally, Cassini will determine the configuration of Saturn's magnetic field and its interactions with the solar wind, Saturn's moons and rings.

The Huygens Probe

  • The Huygens Probe was named after Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch astronomer who in 1655 discovered Titan, Saturn's largest moon. The probe was designed by the European Space Agency (ESA), to perform an in-depth study of the clouds, atmosphere, and surface of Titan.

  • The 319-kilogram (703-pound) Huygens probe will separate from the Cassini orbiter in December of 2004, and will begin a 22-day coast phase toward Titan. Remaining on the Cassini orbiter will be the probe support equipment (PSE), which includes the electronics necessary to track the probe and to recover the data gathered during its descent. Then, in January of 2005, just 45 minutes before reaching the atmosphere of Titan, timers will wake up the Huygens probe.

  • As it finally enters Titan's atmosphere, three sets of parachutes will slow down the probe and provide a stable platform for scientific measurements. The fully instrumented robotic laboratory will reach the mysterious Titan's surface about two and half hours later.

  • The Huygens probe will be plunging into a planetary atmosphere farther away from Earth than any other deep space probe has gone before.

Mission History

  • October 15, 1997 -- Cassini-Huygens launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

  • April 26, 1998 -- Cassini-Huygens flies by Venus, picking up a boost from the planet's gravity.

  • June 24, 1999 -- Cassini-Huygens flies by Venus again, getting another "gravity assist."

  • August 18, 1999 -- Cassini-Huygens gets a third celestial push when it flies by Earth.

  • December 30, 2000 -- Cassini-Huygens flies by Jupiter, snapping photos and getting a final boost. With Galileo still orbiting the planet, it's the first time two spacecraft have explored the gas giant simultaneously.

  • June 11, 2004 -- Cassini flies by Saturn's moon Phoebe, uncovering evidence that the moon may be a frozen artifact of a bygone era, some four billion years ago.

Upcoming Mission Events

  • October 26, 2004 -- First close flyby of Titan.

  • December 25, 2004 -- Huygens probe separates from Cassini

  • January 14, 2005 -- Huygens descends into Titan's atmosphere (Descent begins 5 a.m. EST).

  • August 1, 2005 -- Mimas flyby.

  • September 23, 2005 -- Tethys flyby.

  • September 25, 2005 -- Hyperion flyby.

  • October 10, 2005 -- Dione flyby.

  • November 25, 2005 -- Rhea flyby.

  • December 3, 2007 -- Epimetheus flyby.

Fun Facts

  • Saturn's density is only 0.13 that of Earth. (That's because Earth is made of rocks and stuff, and Saturn is pretty much just gas.)

  • When the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft arrives at Saturn, it will be traveling so fast that engineers will need to burn the spacecraft's engines for 97 minutes just to slow it down. If mission engineers don't do this, the spacecraft would keep on going, instead of entering the orbit around Saturn.

  • The Cassini spacecraft is more than 22 feet high and more than 13 feet wide, not including its deployed boom and antennas. With the Huygens probe, it weighs about six tons.

  • The Cassini spacecraft will send back to Earth more than 300,000 color images of Saturn, its rings, Titan, and Saturn's other moons. Some 1,100 images of Titan will be taken by the Huygens probe during its swirling descent to Titan.

  • Did you know that the Cassini-Huygens Mission is an international collaboration between three space agencies and 17 nations contributed to building the spacecraft? More than 250 scientists worldwide will study the data collected.

  • Throughout the Cassini mission, the spacecraft will send more than 300 gigabytes of scientific data back to Earth, which is more than 400 CD-ROMs of information! This data will be examined by more than 250 scientists around the world.

Source: (NASA’s Cassini-Huygens Page)

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