Saturn puts a ring on it for NASA

The view of Earth from Saturn (Photographer: NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre)

by Michael Maccallam

In a new age of space exploration, fascination seems to be centred almost entirely on inevitable manned missions to our closest planetary neighbour, Mars. Amidst this adoration it may be easy to forget that there lies a probe hundreds of thousands of miles away in deep space, orbiting the second-largest planet of our solar system, Saturn, in ambitious manoeuvres that leave NASA optimistic that we will soon receive ultra-high definition pictures of the planet.

The Cassini spacecraft is currently sending back data after launching itself between Saturn’s rings and its surface at a rocketing 70,000mph, an immensely dangerous speed for a relatively fragile craft. Since the spacecraft was travelling at such a fast speed, the radio dish was commanded to point forward to act as a shield against debris, since even the tiniest of ice or rock would severely damage the craft. A result of this though is that there could be no communication between the craft and NASA, hence why there has been huge relief at the fact that communication was re-established on Thursday, marking Cassini’s first successful dive.

The dive is the first of 22 dives in total over the next five months, and has been called the “grand finale” by those at NASA, since after these dives the spacecraft will dump itself into Saturn’s atmosphere for a final time. Cassini does not have enough fuel in its tanks to carry on for much longer, so the next dive is planned for Tuesday as the craft’s final mission continues.

NASA has promised pictures of the planet in unparalleled resolution, hoping that it will unlock secrets into the secrets of the planet, in particular its rings, and its history over its multi-billion year life. Athena Coustenis from the Paris Observatory in Meudon, France, said that “We’re expecting to get the composition, structure and dynamics of the atmosphere, and fantastic information about the rings”, because if they can determine the mass of the rings it will help them determine the age of the rings, a question which was troubled scientists for decades.

The general theory is that as Cassini flies through the space between the rings and the planet, the craft will be able to observe the gravitational field in which its flying through, which will then in turn allow scientists to determine the rings’ age. The more massive the rings are the older they will be, and so those at NASA are optimistic that this will determine whether they are perhaps as old as the planet itself, or maybe relatively young and thus a result of a comet that flew too close to Saturn and fragmented.

Whatever the answer may be, it is once again an exciting prospect in what seems to be a resurgence in space exploration. With an increasing number of moons showing potential to harbour life, and with manned missions to Mars inevitable, this is one more step towards another milestone in space discovery; the secret of Saturn’s rings.