UK Participation In International Cassini Mission To Saturn
UK scientists are eagerly anticipating the beginning of one of the most ambitious space science missions of the past four decades. The Cassini mission to the ringed planet Saturn is scheduled for launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in mid-October 1997. A heavy-lift Titan IV-Centaur rocket will send the spacecraft on its way to the distant reaches of the solar system, at the beginning of a seven-year odyssey to Saturn. It will be only the fourth close reconnaissance of this giant gas planet and its moons since the space age began in 1957.
Scientists have already spent 15 years planning the mission and preparing their instruments. UK institutions are playing a major role in many of the orbiter's investigations.
The Cassini spacecraft must lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Station, Space Launch Complex 40, between 6 October and 15 November. The launch is currently scheduled for Monday 13 October with a launch window which opens at 4.55 a.m. and closes at 7.15 a.m. (E.D.T.) corresponding to 10.55-13.15 European Time. The voyage to Saturn will take 6.7 years.
Following the launch, the international science team will have to endure a further prolonged period of waiting, punctuated only by two gravity assist flybys of Venus (April 1998 and June 1999), then one each of Earth (August 1999) and Jupiter (December 2000). As Saturn hoves into view in July 2004, a battery of scientific instruments will stir into action, starting the most extensive survey yet obtained of the Saturnian system.
Cassini's task is to spend at least four years conducting 27 different scientific investigations of the giant gas planet's atmosphere and magnetosphere, its magnificent rings, and sixteen of the known moons. The largest of these, Titan, is particularly fascinating since it has a thick, cloudy atmosphere mostly made of nitrogen but also containing hydrocarbons such as methane - similar to the atmosphere of the early Earth but much colder.
During this extended exploration, the spacecraft will complete more than 60 orbits of Saturn, including about 45 close flybys of Titan and about 20 flybys of some of the smaller, icy moons. This tour is made possible by using planet-sized Titan's gravity to alter Cassini's orbit each time the craft swoops to within a few thousand kilometres of the orange cloud tops.
The mission is named after the 17th century Italian-French astronomer, Giovanni Domenico (or Jean-Dominique) Cassini who made a number of important discoveries about the Saturn system.
The mission is an international venture involving the National Aeronautic s and Space Administration (NASA), the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Italian Space Agency (ASI), as well as several European academic and industrial partners. The United States is responsible for the main Cassini spacecraft which will be inserted into orbit around Saturn in July 2004. Attached to the mother craft will be the European Space Agency's Huygens probe, whose task is to parachute onto the unexplored surface of Titan, the largest of Saturn's moons (see RAS press notice 97/36).
More than 616,400 signatures sent to NASA from citizens in 81 countries have been recorded on a high-tech data disk installed on the Cassini spacecraft.
UK investment in the Cassini-Huygens mission amounts to 7.4 million pounds of which 4.48 million pounds is being spent on the orbiter experiments and 2.92 million pounds on the probe investigations. Most of this is provided by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC).
PPARC is the UK Government-funded body providing support for basic research in elementary particles and the forces of Nature; planetary and solar research, including space physics; astronomy, astrophysics and cosmology.
ContactsSATURN'S RINGS AND MOONS:
SATURN'S PLASMA ENVIRONMENT AND MAGNETOSPHERE:
Further information on the Cassini mission can be found on these Web pages: