Catalyst Special - Saturn
Saturn. Girdled by its mighty rings, this is the most instantly recognisable yet least understood of the planets. Now, after a 7 year journey through the solar system, the Cassini spacecraft has finally arrived for what should prove to be an unforgettable four year orbital mission: “For everybody just peering over our shoulders looking at the images, they’re going to see exploration at its finest,” says Imaging team leader Dr Caroline Porco. Cassini is the most sophisticated planetary explorer ever built, bristling with scientific apparatus and some of the sharpest cameras yet flown. It also carries a second spacecraft, the Huygens probe. Huygens is hitching a lift to Saturn’s largest moon: the enigmatic Titan. Titan is the only moon in the Solar System with a dense atmosphere which makes it of tremendous interest to those searching for life beyond the Earth. While simply reaching Saturn was an accomplishment in itself, the fate of the entire US$3.5 billion expedition depended upon Mission Control being able to thread an unmanned spacecraft travelling at 80,000 kilometres per hour through a gap in the rings of Saturn without hitting even a speck of debris – all at a distance of over a billion kilometres. Failure would be absolute. Success, an historic moment in the annals of space exploration.
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