18Feb2013

Cassini Mission Still Alive And Well.

Lest we forget, NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn is still alive, well, and contributing new observations. The endearing spacecraft continues to send back new information on Saturn’s incredible ring system, as well as new looks at its moons Titan and Enceladus.

“Cassini, our emissary in the Saturn system since 2004, and the only spacecraft in orbit in the outer solar system, is still going strong,” says Planetary Science Institute Senior Scientist Amanda R. Hendrix, who spoke recently on “The Organic Lakes of Titan and Other Moons of Saturn” at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Boston.

“Cassini’s longevity allows the study of seasonal variations, along with temporal variations on a variety of scales — and its suite of 12 instruments is making complementary measurements, providing insight into different aspects of various scientific discoveries,” Hendrix, an investigator on the Cassini mission, said.

Just what is the mission taking a look at? We’ve gained tremendous new insights into Titan’s lakes, their depth and seasons. We know more than we ever dreamed about Titan’s weather patterns and interior structure. The mission has sent back incredible images of Enceladus’ shocking plume activity as well as new observations of Iapetus, Dione, Mimas and many other looks at the amazing Saturnian satellite system.

Right now the plans are to keep Cassini in orbit until September 2017. As of now, the spacecraft has increased its orbital inclination which means better views of the ring system and the high latitudes of both the planet and Titan. Our initial observations of Titan came from the Huygens probe – part of the Cassini-Huygens mission. Nine years ago it passed through the moon’s hazy atmosphere and into history when it surface just months later.

The images it returned amazed the world with a look a lakes, dunes and river channels – images which ” continue to be returned by Cassini’s radar instrument, along with the imaging camera and the infrared mapping spectrometer. ” Yet, still there is more. The remaining instruments aboard the mission are continuing to probe the atmosphere and study the seasons. Even radio comes into play as the science antenna continue to calibrate Titan’s interior and chart out its subsurface ocean. Enceladus and its active southern polar plume captivate us – revealing towering vapor and tiny ice particles being released into Saturn’s system.

“When Cassini arrived at Saturn, it was winter in the northern hemisphere of Titan, roughly like January on Earth. Now it’s the equivalent of May on Titan, so spring in the north. And we’re seeing significant variations on Titan that are the result of this seasonal transition,” Hendrix said. Such changes include the rain at low latitudes causing surface changes, and atmospheric variations such as haze layer changes and polar vortex evolution. “By continuing to observe and study Titan, we can put together the pieces of the puzzle of its methane-based hydrological cycle.”

As long as Cassini keeps sending back information, we’ll continue to be intrigued and informed.

Original Story Source: Planetary Science Institute Press Release. Submitted by Tammy Plotner for “Dave Reneke’s World of Space and Astronomy News”.

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