A Long and Winding Road: Cassini Celebrates 15 Years

Today, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft celebrates 15 years of uninterrupted drive time, earning it a place among the ultimate interplanetary road warriors.Since launching on Oct. 15, 1997, the spacecraft has logged more than 3.8 billion miles (6.1 billion kilometers) of exploration – enough to circle Earth more than 152,000 times. After flying by Venus twice, Earth, and then Jupiter on its way to Saturn, Cassini pulled into orbit around the ringed planet in 2004 and has been spending its last eight years weaving around Saturn, its glittering rings and intriguing moons.

And, lest it be accused of refusing to write home, Cassini has sent back some 444 gigabytes of scientific data so far, including more than 300,000 images. More than 2,500 reports have been published in scientific journals based on Cassini data, describing the discovery of the plume of water ice and organic particles spewing from the moon Enceladus; the first views of the hydrocarbon-filled lakes of Saturn’s largest moon Titan; the atmospheric upheaval from a rare, monstrous storm on Saturn and many other curious phenomena.

“As Cassini conducts the most in-depth survey of a giant planet to date, the spacecraft has been flying the most complex gravity-assisted trajectory ever attempted,” said Robert Mitchell, Cassini program manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Each flyby of Titan, for example, is like threading the eye of the needle. And we’ve done it 87 times so far, with accuracies generally within about one mile [1.6 kilometers], and all controlled from Earth about one billion miles [1.5 billion kilometers] away.”

Artist's conception of Cassini–Huygens as it e...

Artist's conception of Cassini–Huygens as it enters Saturn's orbit (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The complexity comes in part from the spacecraft lining up visits to more than a dozen of Saturn’s 60-plus moons and sometimes swinging up to get views of poles of the planet and moons. Cassini then works its way back to orbiting around Saturn’s equator, while staying on track to hit its next targeted flyby.

The turn-by-turn directions that mission planners write also have to factor in the gravitational influences of the moons and a limited fuel supply.

“I’m proud to say Cassini has accomplished all of this every year on-budget, with relatively few health issues,” Mitchell said. “Cassini is entering middle age, with the associated signs of the passage of years, but it’s doing remarkably well and doesn’t require any major surgery.”

The smooth, white paint of the high-gain antenna probably now feels rough to the touch, and some of the blankets around the body of the spacecraft are probably pitted with tiny holes from micrometeoroids. But Cassini still retains redundancy on its critical engineering systems, and the team expects it to return millions more bytes of scientific data as it continues to sniff, taste, watch and listen to the Saturn system.

And that’s a good thing, because Cassini still has a daring, unique mission ahead of it. Spring has only recently begun to creep over the northern hemisphere of Saturn and its moons, so scientists are only beginning to understand the change wrought by the turning of the seasons. No other spacecraft has been able to observe such a transformation at a giant planet.

Starting in November 2016, Cassini will begin a series of orbits that wind it ever closer to Saturn. Those orbits kick off just outside Saturn’s F ring, the outermost of the main rings. Then in April 2017, one final close encounter with Titan will put Cassini on a trajectory that will pass by Saturn inside its innermost ring, a whisper away from the top of Saturn’s atmosphere.

After 22 such close passes, the gravitational perturbation from one final distant Titan encounter will bring Cassini ever closer. On Sept. 15, 2017, after entry into Saturn’s atmosphere, the spacecraft will be crushed and vaporized by the pressure and temperature of Saturn’s final embrace to protect worlds like Enceladus and Titan, with liquid water oceans under their icy crusts that might harbor conditions for life.

“Cassini has many more miles to go before it sleeps, and many more questions that we scientists want answered,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL. “In fact, its last orbits may be the most thrilling of all, because we’ll be able to find out what it’s like close in to the planet, with data that cannot be gathered any other way.”  NASA


Giant Impact Scenario May Explain The Unusual Moons Of Saturn


Among the oddities of the outer solar system are the middle-sized moons of Saturn, a half-dozen icy bodies dwarfed by Saturn’s massive moon Titan. According to a new model for the origin of the Saturn system, these middle-sized moons were spawned during giant impacts in which several major satellites merged to form Titan.

Erik Asphaug, professor of Earth and planetary sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz, will present this new hypothesis October 19 at the annual meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society in Reno, Nevada. Asphaug and his coauthor, Andreas Reufer of the University of Bern, Switzerland, also describe their model in detail in a paper to be published in Icarus (in press).

Asphaug and Reufer propose that the Saturn system started with a family of major satellites comparable to the four large moons of Jupiter (known as the Galilean moons, discovered by Galileo in 1610). The Galilean moons account for 99.998 percent of the mass in Jupiter’s satellite system; although it has dozens of small satellites, Jupiter has no middle-sized moons. The new model may explain why the two systems are so different.

“We think that the giant planets got their satellites kind of like the Sun got its planets, growing like miniature solar systems and ending with a stage of final collisions,” Asphaug said. “In our model for the Saturn system, we propose that Titan grew in a couple of giant impacts, each one combining the masses of the colliding bodies, while shedding a small family of middle-sized moons.”

In this view captured by NASA's Cassini spacec...

Earth is thought to have undergone a similar kind of giant impact, in which our planet gained the last ten percent of its mass and spawned the Moon. Just as our moon is thought to be made out of material similar to Earth’s rocky mantle, the middle-sized moons of Saturn are made of material similar to Titan’s icy mantle, Asphaug said.

“Our model explains the diversity of these ice-rich moons and the evidence for their very active geology and dynamics,” he said. “It also explains a puzzling fact about Titan, in that a giant impact would give it a high orbital eccentricity.”

Asphaug and Reufer used computer simulations to study the giant impact scenario, and they found that mergers of satellites the size of the Galilean moons can liberate ice-rich spiral arms, mostly from the outer layers of the smaller of the colliding moons. Gravitational clumping of the spiral arms then leads to the formation of clumps with sizes and compositions that resemble Saturn’s middle-sized moons.

“These satellite collisions are a regime that is not very well understood, so the modeling opens up new possibilities in general for planet formation,” Reufer said.

The proposed mergers might have occurred as the final act in the process of satellite formation. Alternatively, Saturn may have had a stable system of Galilean-like satellites that was later disrupted by the possibly chaotic migration of the giant planets, as described in the popular “Nice model” of the solar system. A late origin has the advantage of explaining some of the most striking features of the Saturn system.

“What makes the Saturn system so beautiful and unique could be its youth,” Asphaug said. “While we don’t have a preferred timeframe for this origin scenario to play out, it could have happened recently if something came along to destabilize the Saturn system, triggering the collisional mergers that formed Titan. This ‘something’ could have been the close passage of a marauding Uranus and Neptune, which is part of the Nice model.”

Asphaug acknowledged a couple of dynamical issues raised by the new model. The clumps spawned from the giant impacts might get swept up into the accretion of Titan, rather than evolving into separate moons with their own stable orbits. Additional simulations of the dynamical evolution of the complicated, accreting system are needed to further explore and validate the model. But Asphaug said new data from NASA’s Cassini mission on the geophysics of Saturn’s moons will provide the ultimate tests.

“Our model makes strong predictions for how Titan was assembled, what the middle-sized moons are made of, and how they started out as rapidly spinning clumps of ice-rich material,” he said. “So it’s testable. These little moons could provide the clues telling us what happened, and when.” NASA

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