Astronomy enthusiasts rejoice! The Cassini-Huygens mission just sent back its first images of Saturn's atmosphere, and they are incredible. The prospect of even more arresting images has us all atwitter.
What Is The Cassini-Huygens Mission?
Back in the 1980s, development was begun on a project with the goal of sending a spacecraft to the planet Saturn to observe and collect data from up close.
The project, developed under the auspices of sixteen European countries and the United States, culminated in the creation of an unmanned robotic spacecraft that was launched on October 15, 1997.
The vehicle actually consists of two primary pieces. The first of these is the orbiter, which is referred to as Cassini. The second is the lander, referred to as Huygens.
The spacecraft was launched on board a Titan IV/Centaur. From Earth, it went on to briefly orbit the Sun before continuing on to perform flybys of Earth, Venus, and Jupiter.
On July 1, 2004, it finally entered orbit around Saturn. On December 25, 2004, the two modules separated. The Huygens module landed on Saturn's moon Titan on January 14, 2005. The lander began sending data to Earth using the orbiter as a relay.
Cassini recently began the final phase of its mission. In this final phase, the orbiter will dive in and out of Saturn's rings. These passes especially give us the closest look yet at Saturn's outer rings.
Sadly, the culmination of the orbiter's efforts will be its own destruction in 2017. After so many productive years of providing us unprecedented information, the module is running out of fuel to make corrections in its position. In order to prevent its contaminating the moons of Saturn when it begins to decompose, the plan is to crash it into the surface of Saturn itself.
But before we worry about Cassini's impending selfless sacrifice, we can all enjoy these remarkable photos. Check them out.
Four different images of Saturn's northern hemisphere taken by the Cassini orbiter. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
Close-up image of Saturn's north pole. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)