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A great diver: Cassini-Huygens

Saturn, Approaching Northern Summer
Saturn, approaching northern summer

When NASA’s Juno mission entered the orbit of Jupiter, the origin and evolution of one of the largest planets in our solar system started to be uncovered. On April 26 2017 another probe, called Cassini-Huygens, dived into the gap between Saturn and its rings, and NASA received the data from this trajectory on April 27.

The probe was zipping through the region at a speed of about 77,000 mph relative to the planet. That would be fine if there were no small particles in the rings, such as water and ice, or even rocky material. But, being present in high number, they might hit the spacecraft at this immense speed, which could potentially cause huge damage to the probe or even destroy it completely. For the important exploration of such a mysterious region that had never been examined from up close before, Cassini-Huygens was constructed precisely and with a few extra precautions.

Saturnian Hexagon Collage
Saturnian hexagons

The spacecraft has a large, dish-shaped, high-gain antenna as a shield, which is oriented to face in the direction of incoming particles from Saturn’s rings, to avoid damage.

Cassini in the Space Simulator
Cassini-Huygens in an environmental test chamber called the 25′ Space Simulator in Building 150 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

During the mission, the Cassini-Huygens probe captured many close-up pictures and collected lots of useful data. Scientists can now analyse this data to gain a better understanding of what the early solar system was like and how it was formed. However, Saturn and Jupiter, the two largest planets in our solar system, still have lots in store for us by way of discoveries about the laws of the universe.

Launched in 1997, the probe actually arrived at Saturn in 2004 but had already flown past Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, and begun to fly around Saturn in orbit. This dive through the rings is the final mission, its mission “Grand Finale”. After looping Saturn roughly once a week and making a total of 22 dives between the rings and the planet, Cassini-Huygens will finish all its missions and plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere on September 15 2017.