The Cassini-Huygens spacecraft is one of the great collaborations in spaceflight history, with the combination of NASA, ESA and the Italian Space Agency proving to be a resounding success. The mission is considered by most in the field of space and astronomy to be one of the greatest scientific endeavours in space, giving us a greater knowledge of the ringed gas giant Saturn and its intriguing moons. The Huygens lander visited the surface of Titan in 2005 and Cassini has orbited the ringed planet since arriving in 2004, collecting valuable data for scientists back on Earth.
The spacecraft was launched on October 15, 1997 by the Titan-IVB/Centaur rocket from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. In order to reduce the fuel required, the spacecraft used a number of gravity assists to increase velocity and extend its orbit around the Sun further out. Cassini flew past Venus twice (in April 1998 and June 1999), once by Earth (in August 1999) and finally Jupiter (in December 2000). In July 2004 the spacecraft at last arrived at the ringed gas giant Saturn.
In December the Huygens probe was ejected from the spacecraft and set on a trajectory towards Titan. The probe arrived at Saturn’s largest moon in January and began descending through Titan’s atmosphere on January 14, 2005. The probe revealed an unprecedented view of a mysterious world as it descended through the moon’s atmosphere. Huygens survived for 72 minutes on the surface, before the batteries ran out and data ceased to be sent back to Earth.
Cassini has maintained orbit around Saturn and its moon since its arrival in 2004. It carries 12 scientific instruments able to carry out scientific measurements such as examining the gravitational field of Saturn and its moons, determining structural and chemical composition of surfaces and atmospheres of the Saturn system, and much, much more. The probe is powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), designed to power the probe for way over a decade. Cassini communicates with scientists back on Earth using three microwave antennas. The large white dish located at the head of the spacecraft is the high-gain antenna, making it the fastest antenna to send and receive data with. This is used to send back the incredible images we stare in awe at.
Like all good things, they must come to an end. Indeed, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft will complete its mission in 2017. The Cassini probe will carry out daring new orbits, known as proximal orbits, in 2016 as NASA scientists aim to gather as much data with the remaining fuel available. Assuming all goes to plan, the Cassini spacecraft will plunge into Saturn’s gaseous atmosphere to a fiery finale, marking the end of one of the greatest missions in spaceflight.