We humans tend to fixate on the ground, but a recent achievement has given more than just the habitual stargazers among us reason to look up and wonder. The Cassini spacecraft, built under a cooperative project of NASA and the European Italian space agencies, began orbiting Saturn on July 1 for a four-year study of that planet and will release the Huygens probe to parachute through the atmosphere of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, in early 2005.
The Cassini-Huygens program was funded in 1990; the craft was launched seven years later. New images pop up on www.jpl.nasa.gov/index.cfm every day.
When Galileo first observed Saturn through his telescope in 1609, he saw what we now know to be its moons, and he detected, but could not clearly discern, what any schoolchild today can identify as Saturn's rings. In 1659 Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens, using better optics, confirmed the presence of Saturn's rings and its largest moon. A few years later, Gian Domenico Cassini discovered that the rings are split into two main parts by a narrow gap, known since as the Cassini Division. In the 19th century, James E. Keeler showed that the ring system is not a uniform sheet but, rather, a stream of orbiting particles.
On Jan. 14, 2005, the Huygens probe is scheduled to enter Titan's atmosphere and begin transmitting images to Earth.
It could have been different.
"During approach to Saturn, Cassini was greeted at the gate," said NASA deputy principal investigator Bill Kurth. "The bow shock where the solar wind piles into the planet's magnetosphere was encountered earlier than expected. It was as if Saturn's county line had been redrawn." Indeed, as Cassini was approaching Saturn, the craft had to cross the bow shock seven times.
It might have been an impossible feat if not for the hundreds of scientists and engineers from 14 European countries and 32 states who have worked on the mission. The craft has 22,000 wire connections and nearly nine miles of cabling. The main on-board computer uses very high-speed ICs and advanced ASICs. All of Cassini's technology holds promise for use on Earth. Shows you what scientists and engineers can do given time, funds and a goal.
Perhaps the Cassini team's successes will get us looking up more often, imagining what could be.