Wedding to a Ring

Cassini Enters No-stopping Zone

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False color image, Saturn rings showing detail of A through F rings. The banner inset images show the location and distribution of water-ice, ferric iron, carbon dioxide and an unidentified material on the tiny moon of Saturn, Phoebe. The existence of carbon dioxide strongly suggests that Phoebe did not originate in the asteroid belt, but rather in much colder regions of the Solar System such as the Kuiper Belt. Image Credit: JPL/Space Science Institute

Today at 7:36 p.m. Pacific Time (10:36 p.m. EDT), Cassini will begin executing a series of commands to enter orbit around the ringed planet.

The spacecraft will fire its main engine for a crucial 96 minutes to slow down and be captured in orbit about Saturn. Cassini was launched from Cape Canaveral, FL, on October 15, 1997.

Besides launch, orbit insertion is the next most critical part of the mission.

"Everything has to go just right. The burn must occur for all 96 minutes, the turns must occur at the right time, the computers must keep the sequence going even in the event something unexpected should happen," said Robert T. Mitchell, program manager for the Cassini-Huygens mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "The spacecraft has been programmed to continue even in the event of an emergency. With a one-way light time of 1 hour and 24 minutes, we had to teach the spacecraft to take care of itself. We don’t want Cassini to call home if a problem arises, we want it to keep going. That is precisely what we’ve told the spacecraft: Don’t stop, keep going until you’ve put in all 96 minutes of burn," he said.

During the orbit insertion, Cassini will fly closer to Saturn than at any other time during the spacecraft’s planned four-year tour of Saturn. This provides an unprecedented opportunity to study the planet and rings at close range. It will pass approximately 20,000 kilometers (12,427 miles) above Saturn’s cloud tops, closer than any other spacecraft in history. It will also be flying about 10 times closer to the rings than at any other point in the mission

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Cassini image of Saturn rings Image Credit: JPL/NASA

Cassini carries 12 instruments that will study the planet, rings and moons in extensive detail. Riding aboard Cassini is a second spacecraft, the Huygens probe, built by the European Space Agency. It carries half a dozen instruments that will study Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, a prime target for both Cassini and the Huygens probe. Titan is the only moon in the solar system to have a dense atmosphere and resembles the early Earth in deep freeze.

"In a sense, Cassini and the Huygens probe are like time machines that will take us back to examine a world we’ve never seen before, a world that may resemble what our own world was like 4.5 billion years ago," said Dr. Jean-Pierre Lebreton of the European Space Agency, who is mission manager and project scientist for the Huygens probe.

Eighty-five minutes before the engine burn, Cassini will rotate to point its main antenna dish forward. The Italian-built antenna, 4 meters (13 feet) in diameter, will offer shielding against dust particles the spacecraft may hit as it crosses a gap in the rings. The spacecraft will continue transmitting a monotone "carrier" signal with a secondary antenna for tracking from Earth. Cassini will pass twice through a known gap between the F and G rings, first while ascending shortly before the burn, then while descending shortly after the burn.

The engine burn will slow the spacecraft by 626 meters per second (1,400 miles per hour). Five science instruments will be on during the burn, and others will be used shortly after the engine cuts off. The magnetometer will measure the strength and direction of the magnetic field to understand the physics of Saturn’s magnetic dynamics. Lightning may also be detected. Another instrument will provide a record of the dust hits as the spacecraft flies through the ring plane. These observations may tell scientists the size of these tiny particles and the thickness of that ring region. The remote sensing instruments will assess the rings’ composition, temperature, and structure. Then the spacecraft will be oriented for the outbound ring plane crossing. After crossing the ring plane in the descending mode, Cassini will look back at the sunlit face of the rings to take more data before turning to Earth to transmit its data.

"Should something happen during the burn, the science sequence will stop," said Dr. Dennis Matson, project scientist for the Cassini-Huygens mission at JPL. "We are prepared to live with this outcome. Getting into orbit is the priority. Getting the science is extra credit."

Already, in getting to Saturn over seven years, the probe has flown by Venus (within 176 miles in April and June, 1998) and Earth (within 727 miles in August, 1999). Both these gravitational boosters pushed up the craft’s speed by tens of thousands of miles per hour. Cassini was only the seventh probe to pass through the rocky asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter (April 2000). In mid-June 2004, Cassini performed the closest flyby of the Saturnian moon, Phoebe, in hopes of revealing its dark-light reflection and its icy surface.


Related Web Pages

Saturn Edition, Astrobiology Magaz.
Saturn– JPL Cassini Main Page
Lord of the Rings
Space Science Institute, Imaging Team Boulder, Colorado
Saturn: The Closest Pass