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Cassini celebrates ten years exploring Saturn

Jenny Winder, News Writer
Jun 30, 2014, 14:40 UTC

Sen—Today, June 30, the Cassini mission completes ten years in orbit around the planet Saturn, studying the planet, its rings and moons.

The Cassini spacecraft, carrying the European Space Agency's Huygens probe, arrived in the Saturn system on 30 June, 2004, for a four-year primary mission.

Since 2008, NASA has granted the mission three extensions, allowing scientists an unprecedented opportunity to observe seasonal changes as the planet and its retinue completed one-third of their nearly 30-year-long trek around the sun.

Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said: "By having a decade there with Cassini, we have been privileged to witness never-before-seen events that are changing our understanding of how planetary systems form and what conditions might lead to habitats for life."

Cassini 10 Years at Saturn Infographic. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Cassini has beamed back to Earth hundreds of gigabytes of scientific data, enabling the publication of more than 3,000 scientific reports.

Ten of Cassini's top accomplishments and discoveries are:
• The Huygens probe becomes the first to land on a moon in the outer solar system (Titan)
• Discovery of active, icy plumes on the Saturnian moon Enceladus
• Saturn's rings revealed as active and dynamic, a laboratory for how planets form
• Titan revealed as an Earth-like world with rain, rivers, lakes and seas
• Studies of Saturn's great northern storm of 2010-2011
• Studies reveal radio-wave patterns are not tied to Saturn's interior rotation, as previously thought
• Vertical structures in the rings imaged for the first time
• Study of prebiotic chemistry on Titan
• Mystery of the dual, bright-dark surface of the moon Iapetus solved
• First complete view of the north polar hexagon and discovery of giant hurricanes at both of Saturn's poles.

In celebration of the tenth anniversary, members of the Cassini team selected some of their favourite images for a gallery, describing in their own words what makes the images special to them.

An artist's concept of the Cassini spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The project's engineers and scientists had high hopes that the mission might carry on longer than the primary four-years, and designed the system for endurance. The spacecraft has been remarkably trouble-free, and from an engineering standpoint, the main limiting factor for Cassini's lifetime now is how much propellant is left in its tanks.

"Our team has done a fantastic job optimizing trajectories to save propellant, and we've learned to operate the spacecraft to get the most out of it that we possibly can," said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL. "We're proud to celebrate a decade of exploring Saturn, and we look forward to many discoveries still to come."

In late 2016, the Cassini spacecraft will begin a completely new type of mission at Saturn. During its final months, the intrepid spacecraft's orbit will carry it high above the planet's north pole and then send it plunging between the planet and the innermost edge of its dazzling rings.

Cassini: Coming Attractions at Saturn. Credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory