What Did Cassini Teach Us?

What Did Cassini Teach Us?


Ask me my favorite object in the Solar System, especially to see through a telescope, and my answer is always the same: Saturn.

Saturn is this crazy, ringed world, different than any other place we’ve ever seen. And in a small telescope, you can really see the ball of the planet, you can see its rings. It’s one thing to see a world like this from afar, a tiny jumping image in a telescope. To really appreciate and understand a place like Saturn, you’ve got to visit.

And thanks to NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, that’s just what we’ve been doing for the last 13 years. Take a good close look at this amazing ringed planet and its moons, and studying it from every angle.

Space Probes
Cassini orbiting Saturn. Credit: NASA

Throughout this article, I’m going to regale you with the amazing discoveries made by Cassini at Saturn. What it taught us, and what new mysteries it uncovered.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft was launched from Earth on October 15, 1997. Instead of taking the direct route, it made multiple flybys of Venus, a flyby of Earth and a flyby of Jupiter. Each one of these close encounters boosted Cassini’s velocity, allowing it to make the journey with less escape velocity from Earth.

It arrived at Saturn on July 1st, 2004 and began its science operations shortly after that. The primary mission lasted 4 years, and then NASA extended its mission two more times. The first ending in 2010, and the second due to end in 2017. But more on that later.

Before Cassini, we only had flybys of Saturn. NASA’s Pioneer 11, and Voyagers 1 and 2 both zipped past the planet and its moons, snapping pictures as they went.

But Cassini was here to stay. To orbit around and around the planet, taking photos, measuring magnetic fields, and studying chemicals.

For Saturn itself, Cassini was able to make regular observations of the planet as it passed through entire seasons. This allowed it to watch how the weather and atmospheric patterns changed over time. The spacecraft watched lightning storms dance through the cloudtops at night.

This series of images from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft shows the development of the largest storm seen on the planet since 1990. These true-color and composite near-true-color views chronicle the storm from its start in late 2010 through mid-2011, showing how the distinct head of the storm quickly grew large but eventually became engulfed by the storm’s tail. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Two highlights. In 2010, Cassini watched a huge storm erupt in the planet’s northern hemisphere. This storm dug deep into Saturn’s lower atmosphere, dredging up ice from a layer 160 kilometers below and mixing it onto the surface. This was the first time that astronomers were able to directly study this water ice on Saturn, which is normally in a layer hidden from view.

Natural color images taken by NASA’s Cassini wide-angle camera, showing the changing appearance of Saturn’s north polar region between 2012 and 2016.. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Hampton University

The second highlight, of course, is the massive hexagonal storm churning away in Saturn’s northern pole. This storm was originally seen by Voyager, but Cassini brought its infrared and visible wavelength instruments to bear.

Why a hexagon? That’s still a little unclear, but it seems like when you rotate fluids of different speeds, you get multi-sided structures like this.

Cassini showed how the hexagonal storm has changed in color as Saturn moved through its seasons.

This is one of my favorite images sent back by Cassini. It’s the polar vortex at the heart of the hexagon. Just look at those swirling clouds.

The polar vortex, in all its glory. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Now, images of Saturn itself are great and all, but there was so much else for Cassini to discover in the region.

Cassini studied Saturn’s rings in great detail, confirming that they’re made up of ice particles, ranging in size as small a piece of dust to as large as a mountain. But the rings themselves are actually quite thin. Just 10 meters thick in some places. Not 10 kilometers, not 10 million kilometers, 10 meters, 30 feet.

The spacecraft helped scientists uncover the source of Saturn’s E-ring, which is made up of fresh icy particles blasting out of its moon Enceladus. More on that in a second too.

Vertical structures, among the tallest seen in Saturn’s main rings, rise abruptly from the edge of Saturn’s B ring to cast long shadows on the ring in this image taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft two weeks before the planet’s August 2009 equinox. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Here’s another one of my favorite images of the mission. You’re looking at strange structures in Saturn’s B-ring. Towering pillars of ring material that rise 3.5 kilometers above the surrounding area and cast long shadows. What is going on here?

They’re waves, generated in the rings and enhanced by nearby moons. They move and change over time in ways we’ve never been able to study anywhere else in the Solar System.

Daphnis, one of Saturn’s ring-embedded moons, is featured in this view, kicking up waves as it orbits within the Keeler gap. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Cassini has showed us that Saturn’s rings are a much more dynamic place than we ever thought. Some moons are creating rings, other moons are absorbing or distorting them. The rings generate bizarre spoke patterns larger than Earth that come and go because of electrostatic charges.

Speaking of moons, I’m getting to the best part. What did Cassini find at Saturn’s moons?

Let’s start with Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Before Cassini, we only had a few low resolution images of this fascinating world. We knew Titan had a dense atmosphere, filled with nitrogen, but little else.

Cassini was carrying a special payload to assist with its exploration of Titan: the Huygens lander. This tiny probe detached from Cassini just before its arrival at Saturn, and parachuted through the cloudtops on January 14, 2005, analyzing all the way. Huygens returned images of its descent through the atmosphere, and even images of the freezing surface of Titan.

Huygen’s view of Titan. Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

But Cassini’s own observations of Titan took the story even further. Instead of a cold, dead world, Cassini showed that it has active weather, as well as lakes, oceans and rivers of hydrocarbons. It has shifting dunes of pulverized rock hard water ice.

If there’s one place that needs exploring even further, it’s Titan. We should return with sailboats, submarines and rovers to better explore this amazing place.

A view of Mimas from the Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

We learned, without a shadow of a doubt, that Mimas absolutely looks like the Death Star. No question. But instead of a megalaser, this moon has a crater a third of its own size.

Saturn’s moon Iapetus. Image credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

Cassini helped scientists understand why Saturn’s moon Iapetus has one light side and one dark side. The moon is tidally locked to Saturn, its dark side always leading the moon in orbit. It’s collecting debris from another Saturnian moon, Phoebe, like bugs hitting the windshield of a car.

Perhaps the most exciting discovery that Cassini made during its mission is the strange behavior of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The spacecraft discovered that there are jets of water ice blasting out of the moon’s southern pole. An ocean of liquid water, heated up by tidal interactions with Saturn, is spewing out into space.

And as you know, wherever we find water on Earth, we find life. We thought that water in the icy outer Solar System would be hard to reach, but here it is, right at the surface, venting into space, and waiting for us to come back and investigate it further.

Icy water vapor geysers erupting from fissures on Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL

On September 15, 2017, the Cassini mission will end. How do we know it’s going to happen on this exact date? Because NASA is going to crash the spacecraft into Saturn, killing it dead.

That seems a little harsh, doesn’t it, especially for a spacecraft which has delivered so many amazing images to us over nearly two decades of space exploration? And as we’ve seen from NASA’s Opportunity rover, still going, 13 years longer than anticipated. Or the Voyagers, out in the depths of the void, helping us explore the boundary between the Solar System and interstellar space. These things are built to last.

The problem is that the Saturnian system contains some of the best environments for life in the Solar System. Saturn’s moon Enceladus, for example, has geysers of water blasting out into space.

Cassini spacecraft is covered in Earth-based bacteria and other microscopic organisms that hitched a ride to Saturn, and would be glad to take a nice hot Enceladian bath. All they need is liquid water and a few organic chemicals to get going, and Enceladus seems to have both.

NASA feels that it’s safer to end Cassini now, when they can still control it, than to wait until they lose communication or run out of propellant in the future. The chances that Cassini will actually crash into an icy moon and infect it with our Earth life are remote, but why take the risk?
For the last few months, Cassini has been taking a series of orbits to prepare itself for its final mission. Starting in April, it’ll actually cross inside the orbit of the rings, getting closer and closer to Saturn. And on September 15th, it’ll briefly become a meteor, flashing through the upper atmosphere of Saturn, gone forever.

This graphic illustrates the Cassini spacecraft’s trajectory, or flight path, during the final two phases of its mission. The view is toward Saturn as seen from Earth. The 20 ring-grazing orbits are shown in gray; the 22 grand finale orbits are shown in blue. The final partial orbit is colored orange. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Even in its final moments, Cassini is going to be sciencing as hard as it can. We’ll learn more about the density of consistency of the rings close to the planet. We’ll learn more about the planet’s upper atmosphere, storms and clouds with the closest possible photographs you can take.

And then it’ll all be over. The perfect finale to one of the most successful space missions in human history. A mission that revealed as many new mysteries about Saturn as it helped us answer. A mission that showed us not only a distant alien world, but our own planet in perspective in this vast Solar System. I can’t wait to go back.

How have the photos from Cassini impacted your love of astronomy? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

The Incredible Story of How the Huygens Mission to Titan Succeeded When It Could Have Failed

Twelve years ago today, the Huygens probe landed on Titan, marking the farthest point from Earth any spacecraft has ever landed. While a twelfth anniversary may be an odd number to mark with a special article, as we said in our previous article (with footage from the landing), this is the last opportunity to celebrate the success of Huygens before its partner spacecraft Cassini ends its mission on September 15, 2017 with a fateful plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere.

But Huygens is also worth celebrating because, amazingly, the mission almost failed, but yet was a marvelous success. If not for the insistence of one ESA engineer to complete an in-flight test of Huygens’ radio system, none of the spacecraft’s incredible data from Saturn’s largest and mysterious moon would have ever been received, and likely, no one would have ever known why.

The first-ever images of the surface of a new moon or planet are always exciting. The Huygens probe was launched from Cassini to the surface of Titan, but was not able investigate the lakes and seas on the surface. Image Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
The first-ever images of the surface Titan, taken by the Huygens probe. Image Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

As I detail in my new book “Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind-the-Scenes-Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos,” in 1999, the Cassini orbiter and the piggybacking Huygens lander were on their way to the Saturn system. The duo launched in 1997, but instead of making a beeline for the 6th planet from the Sun, they took a looping path called the VVEJGA trajectory (Venus-Venus-Earth-Jupiter Gravity Assist), swinging around Venus twice and flying past Earth 2 years later.

While all the flybys gave the spacecraft added boosts to help get it to Saturn, the Earth flyby also provided a chance for the teams to test out various systems and instruments and get immediate feedback.

“The European group wanted to test the Huygens receiver by transmitting the data from Earth,” said Earl Maize, Project Manager for the Cassini mission at JPL, who I interviewed for the book. “That’s a great in-flight test, because there’s the old adage of flight engineers, ‘test as you fly, fly as you test.’”

The way the Huygens mission would work at the Saturn system was that Cassini would release Huygens when the duo approached Titan. Huygens would drop through Titan’s thick and obscuring atmosphere like a skydiver on a parachute, transmitting data all the while. The Huygens probe didn’t have enough power or a large enough dish to transmit all its data directly to Earth, so Cassini would gather and store Huygens’ data on board and later transmit it to Earth.

Boris Smeds was head of ESOC’s Systems and Requirements Section, Darmstadt, Germany. Credit: ESA.

ESA engineer Boris Smeds wanted to ensure this data handoff was going to work, otherwise a crucial part of the mission would be lost. So he proposed a test during the 1999 Earth flyby.

Maize said that for some reason, there was quite a bit of opposition to the test from some of the ESA officials, but Smeds and Claudio Sollazzo, Huygens’s ground operations manager at ESA’s European Space Operation Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany were insistent the test was necessary.

NASA's Deep Space Network is responsible for communicating with Juno as it explores Jupiter. Pictured is the Goldstone facility in California, one of three facilities that make up the Network. Image: NASA/JPL
NASA’s Deep Space Network is responsible for communicating with spacecraft. Pictured is the Goldstone facility in California, one of three facilities that make up the Network. Image: NASA/JPL

“They were not to be denied,” Maize said, “so they eventually got permission for the test. The Cassini team organized it, going to the Goldstone tracking station [in California] of the Deep Space Network (DSN) and did what’s called a ‘suitcase test,’ broke into the signal, and during the Earth flyby, Huygens, Cassini and Goldstone were all programmed to simulate the probe descending to Titan. It all worked great.”

Except for one thing: Cassini received almost no simulated data, and what it did receive was garbled. No one could figure out why.

Six months of painstaking investigation finally identified the problem. The variation in speed between the two spacecraft hadn’t been properly compensated for, causing a communication problem. It was as if the spacecraft were each communicating on a different frequency.

Artist concept of the Huygens probe descending to Titan. Credit: ESA.

“The European team came to us and said we didn’t have a mission,” Maize said. “But we put together ‘Tiger Teams’ to try and figure it out.”

The short answer was that the idiosyncrasies in the communications system were hardwired in. With the spacecraft now millions of miles away, nothing could be fixed. But engineers came up with an ingenious solution using a basic principal known as the Doppler Effect.

The metaphor Maize likes to use is this: if you are sitting on the shore and a speed boat goes by close to the coast, it zooms past you quickly. But that same boat going the same speed out on the horizon looks like it is barely moving.
“Since we couldn’t change Huygens’ signal, the only thing we could change was the way Cassini flew,” Maize said. “If we could move Cassini farther away and make it appear as if Huygens was moving slower, it would receive lander’s radio waves at a lower frequency, solving the problem.”

Maize said it took two years of “fancy coding modifications and some pretty amazing trajectory computations.” Huygens’ landing was also delayed two months for the new trajectory that was needed overcome the radio system design flaw.

Additionally, with Cassini needing to be farther away from Huygens than originally planned, it would eventually fly out of range to capture all of Huygens’ data. Astronomers instigated a plan where radio telescopes around the world would listen for Huygens’ faint signals and capture anything Cassini missed.

Huygens was released from the Cassini spacecraft on Christmas Day 2004, and arrived at Titan on January 14, 2005. The probe began transmitting data to Cassini four minutes into its descent through Titan’s murky atmosphere, snapping photos and taking data all the while. Then it touched down, the first time a probe had landed on an extraterrestrial world in the outer Solar System.

Because of the communication problem, Huygens was not able to gather as much information as originally planned, as it could only transmit on one channel instead of two. But amazingly, Cassini captured absolutely all the data sent by Huygens until it flew out of range.

“It was beautiful,” Maize said, “I’ll never forget it. We got it all, and it was a wonderful example of international cooperation. The fact that 19 countries could get everything coordinated and launched in the first place was pretty amazing, but there’s nothing that compares to the worldwide effort we put into recovering the Huygens mission. From an engineering standpoint, that might trump everything else we’ve done on this mission.”

The view of Titan from the descending Huygens spacecraft on January 14, 2005. Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.

With its ground-breaking mission, Huygens provided the first real view of the surface of Titan. The data has been invaluable for understanding this unique and mysterious moon, showing geological and meteorological processes that are more similar to those on the surface of the Earth than anywhere else in the Solar System. ESA has details on the top discoveries by Huygens here.

Noted space journalist Jim Oberg has written several detailed and very interesting articles about the Huygens’ recovery, including one at IEEE Spectrum and another at The Space Review. These articles provide much more insight into the test, Smeds’ remarkable insistence for the test, the recovery work that was done and the subsequent success of the mission.

As Oberg says in IEEE Spectrum, “Smeds continued a glorious engineering tradition of rescuing deep-space missions from doom with sheer persistence, insight, and lots of improvisation.”

A modest Smeds was quoted by ESA: “This has happened before. Almost any mission has some design problem,” says Smeds, who says he’s worked on recovering from pre- and post-launch telecom issues that have arisen with several past missions. “To me, it’s just part of my normal work.”

For more stories about Huygens, Cassini and several other current robotic space missions, “Incredible Stories From Space” tells many behind-the-scenes stories from the amazing people who work on these missions.

Land On Titan With Huygens in Beautiful New Video

On December 25, 2004, the piggybacking Huygens probe was released from the ‘mothership’ Cassini spacecraft and it arrived at Titan on January 14, 2005. The probe began transmitting data to Cassini four minutes into its descent through Titan’s murky atmosphere, snapping photos and taking data all the while. Then it touched down, the first time a probe had landed on an extraterrestrial world in the outer Solar System.

JPL has released a re-mix of the data and images gathered by Huygens 12 years ago in a beautiful new video. This is the last opportunity to celebrate the success of Huygens before Cassini ends its mission in September of 2017.

Watch as the incredible view of Titan’s surface comes into view, with mountains, a system of river channels and a possible lakebed.

After a two-and-a-half-hour descent, the metallic, saucer-shaped spacecraft came to rest with a thud on a dark floodplain covered in cobbles of water ice, in temperatures hundreds of degrees below freezing.

Huygens had to quickly collect and transmit all the images and data it could because shortly after landing, Cassini would drop below the local horizon, “cutting off its link to the home world and silencing its voice forever.”

How much of this video is actual images and data vs computer graphics?

Of course, the clips at the beginning and end of the video are obviously animations of the probe and orbiter. However, the slow descending 1st-person point-of-view video is made using actual images from Huygens. But Huygens did not take a continuous movie sequence, so a lot of work was done by the team that operated Huygens’ optical imager, the Descent Imager/Spectral Radiometer (DISR), to enhance, colorize, and re-project the images into a variety of formats.

The view of the cobblestones and the parachute shadow near the end of the video is also created from real landing data, but was made in a different way from the rest of the descent video, because Huygens’ cameras did not actually image the parachute shadow. However, the upward looking infrared spectrometer took a measurement of the sky every couple of seconds, recording a darkening and then brightening to the unobstructed sky. The DISR team calculated from this the accurate speed and direction of the parachute, and of its shadow to create a very realistic video based on the data.

If you’re a data geek, there are some great videos of Huygens’ data by the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory team, such as this one:

The movie shows the operation of the DISR camera during the descent onto Titan. The almost 4-hour long operation
of DISR is shown in less than five minutes in 40 times actual sped up to landing and 100 times actual speed thereafter.

Erich Karkoschka from the UA team explained what all the sounds in the video are. “All parts of DISR worked together as programmed, creating a harmony,” he said. Here’s the full explanation:

Sound was added to mark various events. The left speaker follows the motion of Huygens. The pitch of the tone indicates the rotational speed. Vibrato indicates vibration of the parachute. Little clicks indicate the clocking of the rotation counter. Noise corresponds to heating of the heat shield, to parachute deployments, to the heat shield release, to the jettison of the DISR cover, and to touch down.

The sound in the right speaker follows DISR data. The pitch of the continuous tone goes with the signal strength. The 13 different chime tones indicate activity of the 13 components of DISR. The counters at the top and bottom of the list get the high and low notes, respectively.

You can see more info and videos created from Huygens’ data here.

Read some reminiscences about Huygens from some of the Cassini team here.