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What Is Cassini?

Mar 24

For more than a decade, NASA's Cassini probe has shown us the marvels of Saturn and its frozen moons, transporting us to realms where methane rivers flow into a methane sea and ice and gas jets blast material into space from a liquid water ocean that might house life's elements.

Cassini showed the actual marvels of Saturn, a massive globe controlled by roaring storms and subtle gravitational harmonies.

Cassini sent the European Huygens probe to Saturn, making it the first human-made object to settle on a world in the furthest reaches of the solar system.

Cassini ran out of fuel after 20 years in space, 13 of which were spent investigating Saturn. Cassini was dispatched on a dangerous last mission to seal Saturn's fate in order to safeguard moons that could have circumstances favorable for life. On Sept. 15, 2017, Cassini crashed into Saturn's atmosphere after almost two dozen nail-biting dives between the planet and its icy rings, delivering research data till the very end.

What Will Happen Next?

Cassini had already had a significant impact on future exploration before the mission concluded. The mission reinvigorated a tilt to the discovery of "ocean worlds" that has been sweeping planetary research over the last couple of decades by discovering that Enceladus possesses practically all of the components needed for life.

Lessons gathered from Cassini's mission are being used to prepare NASA's Europa Clipper mission, which is scheduled to launch in the 2020s. Using an orbital tour concept borrowed from Cassini's exploration of Saturn, Europa Clipper will perform thousands of flybys to Jupiter's ocean moon to assess its prospective habitability.

Scientists have long wanted to explore Uranus and Neptune, which are located further out in the solar system. Only one short spacecraft flyby has been made to each of these planets so far (Voyager 2, in 1986 and 1989, respectively). Uranus and Neptune are together known as ice giant planets. A newly completed study, presented to NASA in preparation for the next Decadal Survey, discusses a range of prospective mission concepts, including orbiters, flybys, and probes that would plunge into Uranus' atmosphere to analyze its composition. Future expeditions to the ice giants might use a similar strategy to Cassini's mission and examine those worlds.