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April 1, 2021
Space Thoughts
April 1, 2021

Cassini-Huygens Mission

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“Cassini-Huygens Mission” is one of the greatest space science missions that were ever attempted by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). It was a joint effort by NASA, ESA (European Space Agency), and ASI (Italian Space Agency) which was launched to analyze Saturn, its ring, and its moons. Cassini-Huygens was consisted of “Cassini Space Probe” from NASA which entered into the orbit of Saturn and “Huygens Lander” from ESA which landed on Titan. This mission is named after two astronomers Giovanni Cassini and Christiaan Huygens.

“Cassini-Huygens Probe” was launched on 15th October 1997 and Cassini entered into the orbit of Saturn on 1st July 2004. Cassini was active for about 20 years in space and spent around 13 years in the orbit of Saturn. On the other hand, Huygens traveled with Cassini from launching and split from Cassini on 14th January 2005. Then Huygens reached the surface of Titan’s. This was the first landing on a moon other than the moon of the earth itself. For around 90 minutes, Huygens was able to send data to earth. This mission had come to an end on 15th September 2017 by the destruction of Cassini. 

During the time of Cassini-Huygens launching, we were only aware of 18 moons of Saturn. By now, we have been introduced with 62 moons orbiting Saturn. Most of them were discovered from the earth. But 6 moons were discovered by Cassini. Some moons have very small dia. As a result, it wouldn’t be easy to discover them without orbiting Saturn.

It was revealed by Cassini and Huygens that the largest moon of Saturn, Titan, has a methane-flowing lake. Clouds of Saturn release methane instead of rain. Methane plays the same role on Titan as water plays on earth. It is believed to be the preceded period of organic life.

Large temperature fluctuations in the stratosphere of Saturn were also observed by Cassini. The big storm in Saturn known as “Great White Spot” was observed once which tends to happen once in a Saturnian Year (30 years on Earth). Cassini observed the biggest storm that Saturn ever experienced.

Hurricane on Saturn is about 50 times bigger than that of earth and surprisingly, it is surrounded by a six-sided jet stream which is known as “The hexagon”. This hexagon changes its color with time. Interestingly, different colors are observed in different seasons. All these are solely observed by Cassini.

Enceladus is a moon of Saturn. An ocean underneath the ice layer of Enceladus is discovered by Cassini. It also provides strong evidence of having energy sources, organic molecules which can be a potential habitat for extraterrestrial organic beings. But unfortunately, Cassini wasn’t endowed with instruments that can detect life.

On 15th April 2013, the formation of the new moon was observed by the photographs provided by Cassini. It can help to have an insight into the formation of other moons of Saturn. 

Huygens suggested the liquid hydrocarbon lakes on Titan. Huygens provided the first image from the non-earth planetary surface beyond Mars and Venus. It observed the atmospheric temperature (93.7k), pressure (1.45 atm), relative humidity (for methane) of Titan were observed. It was found by Huygens that the brightness of the Titan surface is 1000 times more dimmed than the full solar illumination on earth. The color of the sky from Titan is orange. Sun is viewed as a small and bright spot from Titan. 

The termination of Cassini was the part of final phase which was names “Grand Finale”. Cassini evolved several passes around Saturn from a very close distance and it approached within the rings of Saturn. On 15th September 2017, it was passed through the atmosphere of Saturn to be destroyed. This was done to protect the potential habitat on the moons of Saturn.

Some amazing researches have been published with the data of “Grand Finale”. The duration of a day of Saturn is measured as 10 hours 33 minutes 38 seconds. The age of the rings of Saturn is also measured from the data of “Grand Finale” and it is around 10 to 100 million years.

It was NASA’s one of the most successful missions which are said to be successful beyond expectations. It has revealed a great scientific insight about Saturn to us. The nature of Saturn, its moons (especially Titan and Enceladus), ring, the birth of the moon are observed in a detailed way. Mysterious and crazy hexagons are also found. But the cause of the formation of these hexagons is still unexplained. As a part of future projects, Titan and Enceladus need to be explored more.

Written By:

Parmit Ghosh

Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET)

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