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How Cassini Changed What We Know About Our Solar System

  • by: Jennifer Robinson
  • On: 25, Oct 2017
6 min read

Twenty years after its launch into space, the life of Cassini – a NASA spacecraft – has come to an end. Cassini plummeted into Saturn’s atmosphere after producing a vast amount of data and photography, delivering significant findings, as well as changing how we understand our solar system. 

What was Cassini's Mission?

Cassini, a planetary spacecraft, was launched in to space on October 15th 1997, with intent to orbit Saturn’s planet and moons for three years; however due to its findings, controllers decided to extend her flight.

Throughout Cassini's mission, the spacecraft discovered seven new moons, raging storms on Saturn as well as shed new light on Saturn’s famous rings.

According to Cassini Program Manager, Dr. Earl Maize, Cassini’s exciting challenges "ultimately lead her through a region where no spacecraft had ever flown before."Cassini has produced incredible findings; expanding our understanding of Saturn and its surroundings, revealing worlds where life might exist. Cassini-Huygens was one of the largest, most successful interplanetary spacecrafts ever invented and was launched as a U.S.-European space mission to Saturn. Weighing over 2200kg at a length of 22ft, Cassini had instruments such as a magnetometer to study Saturn’s magnetic field, and a radar to map the cloud-covered surface.

It was named after the French astronomer, Gian Domenico Cassini (who discovered four of Saturn’s moons and the large gap in Saturn’s rings). In the beginning Cassini landed on Titan, one of Saturn’s largest moons, however as its missions extended, Cassini's mission revealed some of Saturn’s unseen, unique features.

What did Cassini discover?

Saturn’s Magnetosphere

Unexpectedly, Cassini discovered that Saturn’s magnetosphere is filled with electrical gas, or plasma of oxygen.

Enceladus

Cassini found that Saturn’s sixth largest moon is not only active, but that Enceladus’s geologic activity spray paints the surfaces of several other moons in highly reflective ice particles (this in turn creates part of Saturn’s ring).

Habitable Planets

Before Cassini’s mission, NASA’s Galileo mission revealed that Europa (Jupiter’s moon) is likely to have a habitable, global ocean. However, Cassini has revealed that Europa does not stand alone; that Saturn (which is ten times further away from the Sun than Earth) could also harvest a habitable world.

Titan

Prior to Cassini, NASA wasn’t sure what kind of surface Titan (Saturn’s largest moon) would hold. Scientists later discovered, during the Cassini's mission being situated on Titan, that the moon harvested both lakes and seas, situated near the north pole. Most surprisingly however, Cassini revealed that there are a rich variety of organic and complex chemicals forming Titan’s atmosphere, and that the majority of the moon’s landscape is similar to Arizona’s desert.

Liquid Water

Scientists assumed, prior to Cassini’s mission, that Enceladus was too small to generate and hold heat, which is necessary to obtain liquid water. Nevertheless, Cassini discovered intense, geological activity near the moon’s unexpectedly ‘warm’ south pole; this, after years of investigation, revealed that Enceladus hosts a liquid water ocean containing salts and ‘simple organic molecules’ (a promising place in the solar system to look for life beyond Earth).

Seasons

Similar to Earth, Saturn’s axis is tilted to orbit around the sun. Unexpectedly, this has resulted in Saturn displaying annual seasons (a big difference being however, that Saturn’s seasons last seven Earth years at a time).

Energy for Life

Discovered on Titan’s surface was clear evidence of an ocean of water, swimming with prebiotic chemicals, beneath its thick, icy crust. As a result of this finding, some scientists believe hydrothermal chemistry lives within the ocean, which could provide energy for life.

Amazing images captured during Cassini's mission:

Trained telescopes from afar and other missions that previously flew past Saturn, were all that scientists had in terms of data and imagery of Saturn. Cassini’s launch meant that for approximately thirteen years (nearly half a Saturn year) scientists were able to watch the epic changes unfold. Captured in images were:

Lightning

Cassini’s instruments picked up radio waves of ‘lightning’ as soon as it entered Saturn’s orbit in 2004; this was an exciting prospect for scientists receiving the data. However, in 2009 Cassini's cameras captured never seen before images of lightning discharging on another planet other than Earth. Saturn’s 30-year storm appeared 10 earth years earlier than expected, which allowed Cassini the opportunity to capture and study the phenomenon up close.

Ringscapes

Revealed in images were Saturn’s icy ringscapes which are magnificently, physically sheer and delicate, making it an incredibly beautiful planet.

Shadows 

A few days before Cassini plummeted into Saturn’s atmosphere, the spacecraft swooped behind Saturn’s night side and captured the planet at an angle where the sun was just above the frame, causing Saturn to cast a dark shadow onto its rings; this is especially important as this image cannot be seen from Earth and won’t be visible again until another spaceship orbits the planet.

The end of Cassini's Mission: What’s next for the Aerospace industry?

 

Cassini left the world informed, but still wondering, and I couldn’t ask for more” says Cassini project manager Earl Maize.

In April 2017, Cassini began orbiting towards Saturn’s innermost ring in order to end its life. Approximately twenty-three orbits later, Cassini’s final encounter ensured that the spacecraft was able to sample Saturn’s atmosphere directly as well as avoid damaging and contaminating both Titan and Enceladus, by plummeting into its atmosphere.

According to NASA, Cassini's mission members intend on making a future journey back in to Saturn’s atmosphere to search for alien life on both Enceladus and Titan. Also, Cassini scientists are continuously working on analysing the data collected during the spacecraft’s final orbits to discover the exact origin of Saturn’s system of rings.

Cassini’s mission was an amazing achievement. The innovation, precision and passion from the team have paved the way for future missions to explore our solar system.

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