NASA gave its Cassini spacecraft mission a 6 ½-year life extension to continue exploring Saturn and its moons.
Cassini launched in 1997 and first arrived at Saturn in 2004 after flying by Earth, Venus and Jupiter. It carried the Huygens probe on board, which it sent to the surface of the moon Titan in December 2004. The mission was originally slated to end in 2008, but got its first reprieve with 27 months of additional funding to study the planet during its equinox, when the sun is directly above the planet’s equator, which happens once every 15 Earth years.
The spacecraft has captured some of the most stunning images ever seen of the solar system, and space enthusiasts everywhere, including here at Wired Science were dreading the mission’s end. With the Cassini’s new lease, those images will continue wowing us into Saturn’s summer solstice.
“Cassini has been an adventure of a lifetime, an extraordinary exploration of the most enchanting place in all the solar system,” said Carolyn Porco, leader of the Cassini Imaging Team. “It is a very happy day for us, knowing that Cassini lives and the adventure continues.”
Cassini has already traveled 2.6 billion miles, and captured 210,000 images, but is in remarkably good shape. In the next seven years, it will orbit the planet 155 more times and complete 54 flybys of Titan and 11 flybys of our favorite moon, Enceladus. It will dive between Saturn and its iconic rings, gathering more data on the planet’s magnetosphere.
“The extension presents a unique opportunity to follow seasonal changes of an outer planet system all the way from its winter to its summer,” Bob Pappalardo, Cassini project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a press release. “Some of Cassini’s most exciting discoveries still lie ahead.”
One of the mysteries Cassini could help solve is the source of the jets emanating from Enceladus. Scientists suspect they are fed by a subsurface ocean that could possibly be a haven for life.
“This extension is important because there is so much still to be learned at Saturn,” Bob Mitchell, Cassini program manager at JPL, said in a press release. “The planet is full of secrets, and it doesn’t give them up easily.”
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