NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has returned an abundance of data about Saturn and its moons, which is revolutionizing our understanding of this fascinating planet.
Since 2005, Cassini has conducted an in-depth investigation of Saturn and its rings and moons, uncovering mysteries but leaving others for future scientists to solve. On September 3, it will conclude its mission by disintegrating into Saturn’s atmosphere before eventually returning back home.
How It Works
As spacecraft approach Saturn, they must face several hazards. A loose piece of ice or rock could hit its main engine and force it to malfunction; suddenly losing thrust could leave it drifting uncontrollably into an unfavorable orbit and threaten one of Saturn’s moons.
Engineers took great care to protect the spacecraft. They positioned its high-gain antenna so it pointed away from Earth and along its flight path, shielding it from potential particles in Saturn’s rings. Furthermore, engineers launched a rocket engine to reduce speed before entering Saturn’s ring plane.
The Grand Finale’s close passes between Saturn and its rings will enable scientists to better understand some of its mysteries, such as how long days last on Saturn or what creates its rings. But some of the most exciting discoveries may lie within Saturn’s atmosphere or one of its moons – for instance Titan has tantalizing signs that its atmosphere contains complex molecules while seas hold liquid methane and ethane beneath its surface!
Use spectrometers that detect different wavelengths of light ranging from radio waves to visible light to observe atmospheric structure and dynamics, from radio to visible spectrums. Use data collected to establish temperature fields, cloud properties and atmospheric composition; measure global wind fields and observe synoptic cloud features. Measure global wind fields and observe synoptic cloud features as well. Study atmospheric waves and eddies as well as life cycles of Saturn’s north/south polar hurricanes/rediscovered hexagon, plus watch for new storms forming.
Saturn’s brilliant rings are an unforgettable sight, made up of hundreds of narrow “ringlets” made up of chunks of ice no more than three feet across. Astronomers have recently made an important discovery: these icy particles are raining down onto its giant planet and heating its atmosphere by falling onto it constantly from four space missions — NASA/ESA/ASI Cassini probe and two Voyager spacecraft as well as International Ultraviolet Explorer mission (retired). To make their findings known.
Cassini used its cloud-penetrating radar to map Titan’s orange haze and reveal its global geologic surface. Additionally, gravity measurements confirmed that Titan likely harbors a subsurface ocean. Finally, radio science picked up faint signals sent out into space from Titan – discoveries which could potentially aid our search for exoplanets.
The rings of Saturn are an intriguing phenomenon that reveal the scaleability and endless complexity of gravity. Scientists use observations of Saturn’s rings to study its atmosphere, how its moons form and develop over time and its effects from solar system’s early days.
Saturn’s icy moons are full of surprises. Their heavily cratered surfaces reveal how often Saturn was bombarded, while Iapetus has an ancient mountain range wrapping around its equator; on Enceladus, tide forces from Saturn and its larger satellites heat its interior, producing enough heat to form an inner sea which may support life.
Scientists are constantly discovering more than 240 moons circling our Solar System, and new ones may soon join their ranks. Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus may contain oceans of liquid water held afloat by gravitational tides; others like Titan might offer life forms in hostile environments much different than our own planet Earth.
Some moons, like Io, feature numerous active volcanoes spewing sulfuric compounds and other chemicals; others, like Ganymede and Titan, feature atmospheres primarily composed of nitrogen.
Voyager and Pioneer flybys of Saturn from the 1970s and 1980s provided rough sketches of its moons, but Cassini, which concluded its mission in September 2017, provided unprecedented details about them. Cassini revealed that new moons are being formed; solved mysteries about its icy moons; discovered how they interact with Saturn’s rings; and performed one remarkable maneuver whereby it repeatedly dived through a gap between its rings and cloud tops – something no other spacecraft has done previously!