At present, the Cassini spacecraft through the rings of Saturn and the planet itself, a bold road chosen to complete a single mission of exploration.
To find out what this orbit is, and to see some of Cassini’s best moments, we meet key members of the UK team of scientists for this edition of Space.
It is a sunny day in the Surrey Hills south of London as they head into the Mullard Space Science Laboratory. It is a mansion converted into a scientific center for researchers at University College London, offering a picturesque place to study the most colorful planet in the solar system.
MSSL planetary scientist director Geraint Jones explained that the Cassini crew turns the spacecraft into its final orbit to get the closest view possible to Saturn.
“Cassini has been orbiting the planet for many years, and Titan is used to change its orbit,” Euronews said. “And then, at the end of April, the orbit was changed again, passing near Titan.
“And now it’s very exciting: we move between the atmosphere and the ring system of Saturn, and we do it 22 times until the end of September, when the mission ends.”
Jones added: “When entering rings, we can measure the distribution of mass within the planet, and ultimately determine the amount of material in the ring system in orbit around the planet itself.”
One of the most important findings to date is that the gap of two thousand kilometers between icy rings and Saturn’s peaks is empty dust.
There is still a lot we do not know about Saturn, but Professor Michele Dougherty of Imperial College London told Euronews. It has a Cassini magnetometer and highlights some of the key points the team hopes to learn from this orbit.
“We do not understand what the inside is, we think there is a solid core, there is probably a liquid region above this core that generates the magnetic field,” Dougherty said.
“The other thing is – it’s rather embarrassing to admit that – but we were there for 13 years and still do not know how long Saturn is.”
Saturn is called a gas giant, a planet composed of 75 percent hydrogen, and is thought to last about 10 hours. But no one is really sure because of the difficulty of measuring their rotation.
The orbit of the Cassini spacecraft saw flying not only between Saturn’s rings, but also at its poles, providing a better view of the strange hexagonal feature at the top of the globe.
“One of the coolest images on Saturn is the view of the North Pole where you see this hexagonal structure that becomes the atmosphere,” Dougherty said.
“By being able to remotely see the atmosphere and see how the structure changes over time, it allows you to understand the dynamics of the atmosphere if the materials come from below.
“Some of the instruments are able to tell what types of molecules and materials to the atmosphere, and it’s almost like testing the atmosphere without having to enter it.”
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a joint effort between NASA, ESA and ASI for the Italian Space Agency.
Since its arrival in the Saturn system in 2004, the mission has achieved a wide range of discoveries, especially the dozens of moons of Saturn.
In January 2005, Cassini dropped the Huygens probe on Titan’s Saturn moon ESA, the most distant landing ever reached by a spacecraft, which revealed a dark world where rain falls sky pétrinaires.
ESA’s scientific mission Huygens, Jean-Pierre Lebreton, told Euronews that Titan had similarities with our planet, but otherwise, it is very different.
“The temperature on Titan’s surface is about minus 180 degrees, so it’s very cold,” he said.
“Landscapes of Titan very similar to what we have on Earth – we have rivers, lakes that we have, we have the sea, oceans almost methane.
Lebreton added, “It rains, rains methane or a mixture of ethane and methane, there are many weather phenomena or geophysical processes on Titan that make you think about what is happening on Earth, but the ingredients are quite different.