The Cassini-Huygens mission is an international cooperative effort of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Italian Space Agency (ASI). The Cassini spacecratft was assembled by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and it was built to orbit and study the planet Saturn. The Huygens probe was assembled by the European Space Agency (ESA) to explore the atmosphere and surface of Saturn's largest known moon, Titan. Together, the international team is attempting one of the most challenging and ambitious interplanetary explorations ever.
The Cassini spacecraft and Huygens probe were launched (picture on right) on October 15, 1997, at 4:43 EDT (0843 UTC) aboard a Titan IVB/Centaur, the most powerful U.S. rocket available. Cassini-Huygens will reach Saturn after a 7 year journey through the Solar System. Since Saturn is so far away from Earth, Cassini-Huygens needed an extra boost of power to get to Saturn in 7 years. The spacecraft used a technique called gravity assists, where the spacecraft swings by a planet and utilizes its gravity field to increase the speed of the spacecraft. Cassini-Huygens used the following gravity assists:
When Cassini-Huygens arrives at Saturn on July 1, 2004, it will enter into the orbit of Saturn and begin its 4 year mission of studying Saturn, its rings, and its moons. Cassini will use 12 different instruments in order to accomplish its mission.
In December 2004, Cassini will deploy the Huygens probe. The probe is "asleep" during its interplanetary cruise, awakened only for semiannual "health checks" to make sure that all the systems are running properly. Before Huygens is permanently separated from Cassini, Cassini gives it a final health check, positions Huygens so it will intercept Titan, and releases the probe.
Huygens is scheduled to enter Titan's atmosphere on January 14, 2005. The descent of the probe will take between 2 to 3 hours, and during that time, it will use its 6 instruments to look at the structure, composition, and dynamics of Titan's atmosphere. The probe will directly sample Titan's atmosphere and determine its composition, use imaging radar to create detailed images of the terrain, and use a camera to capture over 1,000 images.
Huygens radios its data back to Cassini. Cassini then radios Huygens' data and its own data back to Earth, where scientists will be eagerly awaiting its arrival.
DVD and launch images courtesy of the Cassini Website
Artwork courtesy of the ESA Website