Thursday, July 01, 2004


The Cassini spacecraft successfully made it into orbit around Saturn last night. It had to successfully pass through the ring plane of Saturn twice and fire its rocket engine for 96 minutes to change its velocity by 626 meters per second (about 1,400 miles per hour). I watched NASA TV during the event and waited along with more than a dozen friends and colleagues who have invested as many as 15 years working on Cassini. Each hurdle passed with the cheers of the folks on TV at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) control center as we watched the Doppler velocity graph change as they tracked the spacecraft during its close approach to the planet and its rocket engine burn. After its engine shut down right on time, the largest cheers were heard. In the meantime, out at Saturn, the spacecraft turned its high gain antenna towards Earth to improve communication and then turned its powerful cameras onto the rings of Saturn as it made its closest and best approach of the entire 4 year orbital mission to the rings. This morning, it beamed its images back home and we've seen some of the fantastic images on the web and in the news. It is just the beginning of 4 wonderful years of discovery around the Solar System's 2nd largest planet.

Next up: a close flyby of Titan, the 2nd largest moon in the Solar System and the equivalent of your grandmothers freezer where she kept those Apple pies frozen and awaiting your visit, in this case, a frozen snapshot of planet formation in the early solar system. Titan is hidden by a thick cloud cover that keeps us from easily seeing the surface. In December, Cassini will release the Huygens probe which will enter the atmosphere of Titan on January 14 and parachute through its atmosphere taking measurements and images all the way to the surface. Will it land on solid ground or will it land in an ocean of methane? Some of my friends designed and built the camera that will show us.



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