Two More Years! Two More Years! NASA Extends Cassini-Huygens to 2010


PASADENA, Calif. — NASA is extending the international Cassini-Huygens mission by two years. The historic spacecraft’s stunning discoveries and images have revolutionized our knowledge of Saturn and its moons.

Cassini’s mission originally had been scheduled to end in July 2008. The newly-announced two-year extension will include 60 additional orbits of Saturn and more flybys of its exotic moons. These will include 26 flybys of Titan, seven of Enceladus, and one each of Dione, Rhea and Helene. The extension also includes studies of Saturn’s rings, its complex magnetosphere, and the planet itself.

“This extension is not only exciting for the science community, but for the world to continue to share in unlocking Saturn’s secrets,” said Jim Green, director, Planetary Science Division, NASA Headquarters, Washington. “New discoveries are the hallmarks of its success, along with the breathtaking images beamed back to Earth that are simply mesmerizing.”

“The spacecraft is performing exceptionally well and the team is highly motivated, so we’re excited at the prospect of another two years,” said Bob Mitchell, Cassini program manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.


NASA Offers Students a Chance to Explore Saturn

NASA is offering U.S. schoolchildren a chance to control the Cassini spacecraft. The space agency is holding a contest for students in grades 5-12 to decide what part of Saturn the spacecraft will explore for nearly an hour on June 10. Cassini’s Science Planning Team has developed a list of three possible targets.

“You are to weigh all the factors, and after choosing one of the three targets, explain the reasons for your choice in a 500-word essay,” the contest’s website states. “Your decision should be based on which image would yield the most scientific results. Just like actual scientists do, you are to explain what you hope to learn from the image you have selected. The artistic value of the image can be an added bonus to your decision.”

Students can work alone or in groups of up to four. The deadline for submission is May 8 at 3 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time.

Cassini Samples Organic Material at Saturn’s Geyser Moon


Heat radiating from the entire length of 150 kilometer (95 mile)-long fractures is seen in this best-yet heat map of the active south polar region of Saturn’s ice moon Enceladus. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute


PASADENA, Calif. — NASA’s Cassini spacecraft tasted and sampled a surprising organic brew erupting in geyser-like fashion from Saturn’s moon Enceladus during a close flyby on March 12. Scientists are amazed that this tiny moon is so active, “hot” and brimming with water vapor and organic chemicals.

New heat maps of the surface show higher temperatures than previously known in the south polar region, with hot tracks running the length of giant fissures. Additionally, scientists say the organics “taste and smell” like some of those found in a comet. The jets themselves harmlessly peppered Cassini, exerting measurable torque on the spacecraft, and providing an indirect measure of the plume density.

“A completely unexpected surprise is that the chemistry of Enceladus, what’s coming out from inside, resembles that of a comet,” said Hunter Waite, principal investigator for the Cassini Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “To have primordial material coming out from inside a Saturn moon raises many questions on the formation of the Saturn system.”


Cassini Finds Evidence of Underground Ocean on Titan


PASADENA, Calif. – NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has discovered evidence that points to the existence of an underground ocean of water and ammonia on Saturn’s moon Titan. The findings, made using radar measurements of Titan’s rotation, will appear in the March 21 issue of the journal Science.

“With its organic dunes, lakes, channels and mountains, Titan has one of the most varied, active and Earth-like surfaces in the solar system,” said Ralph Lorenz, lead author of the paper and Cassini radar scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., “Now we see changes in the way Titan rotates, giving us a window into Titan’s interior beneath the surface.”


Cassini Flies Through Watery Plumes of Saturn Moon

Enceladus’ North Polar Region


NASA’s Cassini spacecraft performed a daring flyby of Saturn’s moon Enceladus on Wednesday, March 12, flying about 15 kilometers per second (32,000 mph) through icy water geyser-like jets. The spacecraft snatched up precious samples that might point to a water ocean or organics inside the little moon.

Scientists believe the geysers could provide evidence that liquid water is trapped under the icy crust of Enceladus. The geysers emanate from fractures running along the moon’s south pole, spewing out water vapor at approximately 400 meters per second (800 mph).

The new data provide a much more detailed look at the fractures that modify the surface and will give a significantly improved comparison between the geologic history of the moon’s north pole and south pole.


Cassini Spacecraft to Dive Into Water Plume of Saturn Moon


PASADENA, Calif. – NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will make an unprecedented “in your face” flyby of Saturn’s moon Enceladus on Wed., March 12.

216500main_enceladus-flyby-226.jpg The spacecraft, orchestrating its closest approach to date, will skirt along the edges of huge Old-Faithful-like geysers erupting from giant fractures on the south pole of Enceladus. Cassini will sample scientifically valuable water-ice, dust and gas in the plume. (You can keep up with latest events on NASA’s official Enceladus Flyby blog.)

The source of the geysers is of great interest to scientists who think liquid water, perhaps even an ocean, may exist in the area. While flying through the edge of the plumes, Cassini will be approximately 120 miles from the surface. At closest approach to Enceladus, Cassini will be only 30 miles from the moon.