Cassini Spacecraft–Makes 100th Flyby Of Saturn’s Largest Moon Titan


Photo: NASA        

Saturn’s moon Titan will have a visitor on March 6, 2014, that has called upon this largest Saturnian moon 99 times before. It is the NASA/ESA Cassini/Huygens spacecraft. Cassini/Huygens was launched on a Lockheed Martin-built Air Force Titan IV/Centaur rocket Oct. 15, 1997. The Cassini propulsion module, also built by Lockheed Martin, is the largest U.S. planetary spacecraft propulsion system ever built, and was fired 16 times en route to Saturn. 

The spacecraft dropped into orbit around the magnificent ringed planet on July 1, 2004, and began its voyage of discovery. Originally planned for four years of orbital science investigations, the mission has been extended several times, and nearly ten years after arriving at Saturn the spacecraft is healthy and has much more to do.

Titan is the second largest moon in our solar system, coming in just behind Jupiter’s Ganymede. It is, however, the solar system’s only moon with a dense atmosphere. Titan’s climate includes both wind and rain and sculpts features on the moon’s surface into dunes, rivers, lakes and seas (likely of liquid methane and ethane.) It is no surprise that this enigmatic moon so far away is of intense interest to planetary scientists. The study of Titan, Saturn's largest moon, is one of the major goals of the mission. Although it is believed to be too cold to support life, haze-covered Titan may preserve, in deep-freeze, many of the same chemical compounds that preceded life on Earth.

The Lockheed Martin propulsion system will be ignited over 100 more times before the end of the mission. In addition, Space Systems Company designed and built the three radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) that power spacecraft systems, as well as the Descent Imager/Spectral Radiometer (DISR) instrument on the Huygens probe that parachuted to the surface of Titan in January 2005, becoming the only spacecraft to land on a moon of an outer planet.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter. The European Space Agency managed the development of Huygens and was in charge of operations of the probe from its control center in Darmstadt, Germany. The Italian Space Agency provided the high-gain antenna, much of the radio system and elements of several of Cassini's science instruments. JPL manages the overall program for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C.

March 6, 2014

New Moon Titan

This false-color mosaic, made from infrared data collected by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, reveals the differences in the composition of surface materials around hydrocarbon lakes at Titan, Saturn's largest moon. Titan is the only other place in the solar system that we know has stable liquid on its surface, though its lakes are made of liquid ethane and methane rather than liquid water. While there is one large lake and a few smaller ones near Titan's south pole, almost all of Titan's lakes appear near the moon's north pole.  Photo: NASA