Spacecraft’s first dive through Saturn rings a ‘thrilling journey’

6 Dec 2016

Image: Aphellon/Shutterstock

NASA’s Cassini mission to learn as much as possible about Saturn reached a high point over the weekend, with the spacecraft flying through one of the giant planet’s many mysterious rings.

The long mission to, and around, Saturn undertaken by the Cassini spacecraft and its team has been lauded as “a thrilling journey” by NASA engineers.

Cassini recently began the final stage of its mission, a series of daring dives through Saturn’s various rings (A, B, C, D, E, F and G, named in order of their discovery).


Saturn up close

After one week of readjustments, Cassini finally made its first dive through ring F on Sunday, 91,000km from Saturn’s cloud tops, which will be investigated at a later date.

Sadly, we’ll have to wait a little longer before images of such a dive and position are attained, as this early dive was merely a precursor to what’s to come – acting as an early monitor of how future manoeuvres will go.

“It has taken years of planning, but now that we’re finally here, the whole Cassini team is excited to begin studying the data that come from these ring-grazing orbits,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. “This is a remarkable time in whats already been a thrilling journey.”

That thrilling journey has so far taken a decade, leaving Earth in 1997 and reaching Saturn in 2004.

Many discoveries

During its journey, Cassini has made numerous dramatic discoveries, including a global ocean with indications of hydrothermal activity within the moon Enceladus, and liquid methane seas on another moon, Titan.

Both of these moons could host life, despite varying degrees of seeming inhospitality. At first glance, Titan’s rivers, lakes and rains of methane would suggest that its surface would be nothing but a desolate wasteland, incapable of harbouring life.

However, a team of researchers from Cornell University in the US has designed something that may suggest otherwise.

Publishing its findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers recently created a simulation that suggests Titan’s lack of water does not necessarily mean it couldn’t allow the development of microbial life.

This was spurred on by the discovery of polymers such as polyimine, which suggests that something else is going on, on the planet’s surface.

Meanwhile, the “vast ocean” covering Enceladus’s entire subsurface area will become one of the leading candidates for future investigations.

Cassini mission controllers received signals from the spacecraft that the maneuvers were completed successfully. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Cassini mission controllers received signals from the spacecraft that the recent manoeuvres were completed successfully. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Ring weary

For Cassini, though, it’s the rings that are a priority for now. Each of Cassini’s orbits for the remainder of the mission will last one week.

The next pass by the rings’ outer edges is planned for 11 December, marking the second of 20 such trips.

The last close flyby of Titan will reshape Cassini’s flight path, positioning it for 22 plunges below Saturn’s innermost ring.

It is hoped that, by the end of the mission that will see Cassini crash into Saturn’s surface in a final hurrah, the origins of the rings will be determined.

Researchers from Tokyo Institute of Technology recently suggested that they were formed from several thousand Pluto-sized objects.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic