If THEY are out there, Cassini-Huygens will certainly find them. This innovative robotic spacecraft is not only an example of how the enormousness of the human mind equals that of the cosmos, but also shows that cooperation – not competition – leads to success.
On April 15, 2008, the mission that was originally scheduled to end in of July this year was extended for two years. Despite financial problems, NASA decided that the Cassini-Huygens project was too important to be scrapped. “This extension is not only exciting for the science community, but for the world to continue to share in unlocking Saturn’s secrets,” said Jim Green, the director of NASA Planetary Science Division.
The spacecraft began its mission on October 15, 1997. It was one of the first projects run together by three space agencies: NASA, European Space Agency (ESA), and Italian Space Agency (ISA). The Americans were responsible for building the orbiter – Cassini – named after the 18th century Italian astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini. The probe was the result of the ESA scientists and technicians who gave it the name of Huygens to commemorate Christian Huygens, a Dutch mathematician and physicist from the late 17th century. The Italians provided a special antenna to control the spacecraft.
Eight thousand people from 16 countries on both continents worked like one person to make sure that their beloved child would lack nothing. The preliminary talks on the joint project began as early as 1982, but several more years would pass until the first elements of the spacecraft were constructed. Since the very beginning, it was ESA that was pushing the mission further, seeing the project as yet another chance for cooperation between European nations and the United States. But in the early 1990s Cassini-Huygens was temporarily put on hold as the American Congress refused to continue financing the costly and risky project. Twice, in 1992 and 1994, did NASA engage its full authority to sway reluctant representatives and twice it succeeded.
Seven objectives were set for the transatlantic spacecraft. When the eyes of the world were nostalgically turned to Mars, the Red Planet (think of the Total Recall movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone), the Americans and Europeans decided to send Cassini-Huygens two planets further, to Jupiter. The scientists hoped that the mission would help them answer several important questions – from the structure of Jupiter’s numerous rings to the construction of the planet’s satellites, with special attention put on Titan.
But Cassini-Huygens carried on board something more than just a sophisticated mechanism. As a truly international venture, it was equipped with a special DVD disk with the voice of over 616,000 people from around the world wishing their best to whomever might hear them. Although the idea was nothing new – Voyager 1, one of the pioneers in space probing, and newer Galileo had several plates with human signs – the then revolutionary DVD technology managed to include more signatures than all the previous missions put together.
Cassini-Huygens reached its target over seven years after it took off from Cape Canaveral. On Christmas day, 2004, the probe separated from the orbiter and began its lone journey towards Saturn and its satellites. In the meantime, some countries had disappeared and some had been born; the World Trade Center twin towers in New York had been destroyed by murderous terrorist attacks; and some of the space aircraft’s builders had died, joining their beloved child in the endless journey through space and time. The European Space Agency had undergone changes. From 10 states that had founded the agency in 1974, it had spread to 17, with several more countries waiting for admission.
The data provided by Cassini-Huygens exceeded original expectations. In only the first two weeks, the probe managed to send to NASA headquarters 350 pictures. Most of the pictures of Saturn and its surroundings that we can admire in albums and on the Internet have been taken by the American-European mission. What is more, high resolution photographs of Titan have proved that Saturn’s largest satellite contained vast resources of liquid methane and hundreds of times more natural gas that the entire planet Earth.
Cassini-Huygens will start the 11th year of its service in October of this year, but despite its advanced age – who now remembers the obsolete computers from the late 1990s? – it is still working and providing scientists with valuable information. “New discoveries are the hallmarks of its success, along with the breathtaking images beamed back to Earth that are simply mesmerizing,” said Jim Green.
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