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Cassini will be torn to pieces as it heads down towards Saturn's clouds.

Its components will be melted by the planet's gases.


-- discovered a watery ocean beneath surface of moon Enceladus

-- showed moon Titan to be a version of Earth, with seasonal cycles, wind and rain

-- observed previously unknown structures, propellers, in the mysterious rings

-- revealed giant hurricanes at Saturn's poles, including a bizarre hexagonal jet

Cassini-Huygens reached Saturn and its moons nearly 30 years after Nasa artist Ken
Hodges envisaged this epic mission to the planet.
The data that the spacecraft has sent back to Earth has been transformative.

Cassini has been insanely, wildly, beautifully successful, Nasa program scientist
Curt Niebur said recently.

Cassini's view of Saturn and its moon Titan(Nasa)

Cassini's view of Saturn and its moon Titan
Saturns majestic rings have been revealed as a time machine, a kind of mini-Solar
System and a laboratory for studying how planets and moons are formed.

We also discovered that Titan has wind, rivers, seas and lakes, just like Earth -
but with an exotic twist.

And through Cassinis flybys of the enigmatic moon Enceladus, we found that many of
the Solar Systems icy moons could be hiding deep oceans of water beneath their

The surface of Enceladus seen by Cassini(Nasa)

The surface of Enceladus seen by Cassini
As such, there could be footholds for life all over our cosmic neighbourhood -
something that could have profound implications for our own place in the Universe.

But the missions prospects hadnt always looked rosy. In fact, at the turn of the
millennium, mission planners were faced with the prospect of an unmitigated

They had already launched the spacecraft to Saturn when a fatal flaw was

Huygens, the probe designed to land on Titan, would not be able to talk to its
mothership Cassini during the descent to Saturns biggest moon.

All useful data would be lost, and years of hard work would be consigned to the
rubbish bin.

Work on the Huygens probe before it was attached to Cassini(Nasa)

Work on the Huygens probe before it was attached to Cassini
There was a sense of urgency, of importance. This was clearly one of the prime
components of the mission and we had to salvage everything we could, says
Cassinis program manager Earl Maize.

Racing against the clock, scientists and engineers worked day and night to solve
the problem. Eventually, an ingenious fix was found.

It was just one of many examples across the mission's 35-year history where
ingenuity and international co-operation helped overcome daunting obstacles.

Getting on
the ring road
The plan to return to Saturn with a dedicated mission was hatched after the Voyager
probes beamed back stunning images of the outer planets and their moons.

Voyager 1 colour-enhanced image of Saturn 18 October 1980(Nasa)

Voyager 1 colour-enhanced image of Saturn

18 October 1980
The Voyagers gave us a really wonderful impression of Saturn. Its a beautiful gas
giant, says Nasas director of planetary science Jim Green.

Prof Andrew Coates, from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory in Surrey, UK,

Saturn is the most spectacular planet in our Solar System. The incredible rings,
visible even in binoculars or a small telescope, make it stand out compared to all
the rest.

In places, the rings are only about as tall as a telephone pole. Yet from end-to-
end they are more than 20-times as wide as the Earth.

They have influenced decades of science fiction book covers.

Reproduction of In the Ring of Saturn by artist Andrei Sokolov(Topfoto)

Reproduction of In the Ring of Saturn by artist Andrei Sokolov
Then there is Saturns biggest moon - Titan.

This world was thought to be a deep frozen version of Earth, but was shrouded in a
dense orange haze that previous missions hadnt been able to see through.

Its a fabulous moon. Its a huge moon. If you pulled it out of orbiting Saturn
and had it orbit the Sun, youd call it a planet. Its bigger than the planet
Mercury, says Green.

In the early 1980s, Nasa cancelled a collaborative mission with Esa, leading to
frosty relations between the two organisations.
Though scientists continued to work on the Saturn mission regardless of politics,
they would eventually need their space agencies to buy into a transatlantic
partnership if they had a hope of launching.

By late 1983, they had decided the prospective mission should be split so that the
Americans built an orbiter - named Cassini after a 17th and 18th Century astronomer
- and Europe developed a probe to land on Titan.

Giovanni Cassini(Alamy)
Giovanni Cassini
The momentum in the science community eventually led to a detente between Nasa and

After Project Cassini passed a detailed scientific assessment, Nasa and Esa gave
the go-ahead to their respective parts of the mission and a unique international
collaboration was inked.

But it was a bumpy ride to the launch pad.

Budget cuts in the early 1990s forced the Cassini spacecraft to be re-designed,
resulting in the removal of moving parts that would have swivelled instruments to
look at their targets.

Instead, the entire spacecraft would have to be turned during observations.

The result, says Cassini project manager Earl Maize, was like going on safari and
bolting a camera to the hood of your off-road vehicle.

You would have to turn the whole car to look at the animals, instead of just
turning your head and snapping away.

However, the biggest threat to the Cassini-Huygens mission emerged in late 1993.
Amid changing political winds, US Congress warned Nasa that its mission could be

Esas director general Jean-Marie Luton protested in writing to senior US

politicians, dangling the prospect of a new freeze in relations.

The BBC has seen one of the letters, addressed by Luton to then US vice president
Al Gore.

Europe, it says, views any prospect of a unilateral withdrawal from the

cooperation on the part of the United States as totally unacceptable. Such an
action would call into question the reliability of the US as a partner in any
future major scientific and technological cooperation.

The international dimension to the mission saved Cassini from the disaster of not
being launched, says Dr Roger-Maurice Bonnet, science director at Esa from 1983 to

This is the advantage of being a European organisation, where 13 member states

have 13 ambassadors in the United States, each of them putting pressure on one
single government."

Christiaan Huygens(Alamy)
Christiaan Huygens
Dr Bonnet named the Titan lander Huygens on the spur of the moment.

It had been known simply as the European probe until quite close to the launch.

But in a meeting, he was challenged to come up with a better name by the Swiss
representative to Esa.

I had just read a few articles on Christiaan Huygens [the Dutch scientist who
discovered Titan] and I said: 'Call it Huygens'. It was approved - especially by
the Dutch delegation."

On 15 October 1997 - at 04:43 local time - the engines

of a Titan IV rocket ignited on the pad
at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The launcher carried Cassini-Huygens aloft

on a brilliant white column of flame.
It lit up the morning sky, recalls Jean-Pierre Lebreton,
project scientist on the Huygens probe.

For us, the scientists, a new phase of the mission was starting.
During its seven-year journey, Cassini would carry out several slingshot
manoeuvres, using the gravity of Venus and Jupiter to alter its path and speed.

This allowed the spacecraft to save propellant and time on its way to Saturn.

A big problem,
a long way from home
During their construction and assembly, the Cassini orbiter and the Huygens probe
had been subjected to rigorous tests.

But in the headlong march to the launch pad there was always the risk that
something critical could have slipped the net. It had.

During its descent to Titan, the Huygens probe would use a radio link to send the
information it had gathered back to its mothership Cassini, which would be flying
in nearby space.

Artist impression of Huygens probe's Titan landing(Esa)

Artist impression of Huygens probe's Titan landing
Once Cassini had received the data, it would be relayed to Earth.

The Huygens landing was a one-shot deal, it had to work perfectly the first time.

Even though Cassini was already en route to Saturn, scientists conceived a plan to
test every step of the communications loop ahead of the big day.

Boris Smeds, a senior radio engineer at Esa, was assigned the task of devising and
performing the test.

It would need a space communications station on Earth with powerful antennas. Smeds
would use one of the antennas to beam a dummy signal to Cassini.

This was designed to mimic the way Huygens would transmit its data to Cassini while
it floated down through Titans clouds.

An antenna at Goldstone, California(Nasa)

An antenna at Goldstone, California
Smeds secured the use of Nasas Goldstone antennas in the Mojave desert,

And in February 2000, he was accompanied to a bunker-like room beneath one of

Goldstone's 34-metre parabolic antennas and got to work.

He sent out the simulated transmission to Cassini and, using equipment he'd brought
over in his luggage, steadily reduced the power to test how resilient the
communications system was.

Just like it was supposed to, Cassini beamed the information straight back to

The data was then sent on to the European Space Agencys mission control centre in
Darmstadt, Germany.

It soon became clear something was wrong.

I was on the telephone, in contact with Darmstadt. The reports I got from them
were very negative, because they didn't receive the data as expected, Smeds says
from his home in Sweden.

Apart from the occasional good data frame, the information sent to Germany was
completely garbled.

The problem would soon become clear. Cassinis receiver hadnt been built to handle
the changes in frequency and wavelength of the signal it would be receiving from
Huygens as it descended to Titan.

The train had already left the station, and the problem with the receiver - built
by a European contractor - couldnt be corrected from the ground.

But it was thought there might be a workaround and a rescue committee was put

Earl Maize of Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory(Nasa)

Earl Maize of Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
It was a crash effort. I was back and forth across the Atlantic about every
month, says JPL's Earl Maize.

Once we realised we had some room to move, we mostly just rolled up our sleeves to
figure it out.

If the science data from Huygens couldnt be decoded, $500m and years of work would
disappear down the drain.

The blow to the science community, and Europe in particular, would be devastating.

The problem was affected by the relative speeds of the Cassini spacecraft and the
Huygens probe.

So Cassini's trajectory was changed so that it would be much further away and at an
oblique angle to Huygens during the landing.

This drastically reduced the relative velocity, preventing the data from getting

Artist impression of the Huygens probe separating from Cassini(Esa)

Artist impression of the Huygens probe separating from Cassini
Once we found the trajectory option, we could all breathe a sigh of relief,
recalls Maize.

Next stop, Saturn

In 2004, after nearly seven years of space travel, Cassini-Huygens had Saturn in
its sights.

In order to park itself around Saturn, the spacecraft had to execute a complex
manoeuvre called Saturn Orbit Insertion (SOI).

Artist impression of Saturn Orbit Insertion(Esa)

Artist impression of Saturn Orbit Insertion
On 1 July, the spacecraft would cross through a gap in Saturn's rings, moving from
the lower side to the upper side as viewed from Earth.

Once through the gap, Cassini would rotate, so that its engine was pointing along
the flight path.

The engine would then burn to slow the spacecraft by 600 m/s, allowing it to be
captured by Saturn's gravity.

The huge change in velocity required to place Cassini in orbit from its fast
approach required a particularly long burn.

We had to complete a 96-minute engine burn, and we needed to complete at least 92

minutes of that or we risked flying by Saturn - just like the Voyagers, explains
Linda Spilker.

While controllers monitored events at JPL, they were joined in the room by the
centre's director Charles Elachi and Nasa's head of science Ed Weiler.

The bosses sat at a table with a jar of lucky peanuts - a tradition at launches and
major mission events since the 1950s.

As Cassini travelled along its planned trajectory, the wait was nerve-jangling.

That was a very tense moment, waiting for that signal while the burn happened when
Cassini was behind the planet, so we didn't have a direct signal to the Earth,
Spilker recalls.

I remember being there with my family - my daughters, my husband, my mum, my

sisters, they were all there watching.

Then Cassini came out [from behind Saturn] and, sure enough, its path was right
where it should have been.

There was jubilation at mission control as team members high-fived and clapped.

Meticulous planning had paid off - with, perhaps, a little help from those peanuts.

Charles Elachi (l) and Ed Weiler (r) - with their peanuts - celebrate Cassini's
crucial Saturn Orbit Insertion(Getty Images)
Charles Elachi (l) and Ed Weiler (r) - with their peanuts - celebrate Cassini's
crucial Saturn Orbit Insertion
(Getty Images)
For Spilker, Saturn's rings had long held a particular fascination, having formed
the basis of her PhD thesis.

Cassini was supposed to turn its cameras towards the rings after the engine burn,
but the images wouldn't arrive on Earth for several hours.

So she left for home, only to return to JPL early in the morning to see the first
photos of the majestic rings being displayed one-by-one.

I almost felt like I was there, walking through the rings and really seeing them
in a way - and at a resolution - that no one had ever seen them before, she says.

It was a great day. Cassini was off to a good start.

With one mission milestone over, the next one was fast approaching: Cassini had to
deliver the Huygens probe to Titan.

On Christmas Day 2004, a set of pyrotechnic devices fired, releasing three loaded
springs that gently nudged the lander away from Cassini.

As the little probe coasted away from its mothership, an anxious three-week wait

With battery power switched off, no signal would be heard from the little probe
until the day of its descent to Titan.

Jean-Pierre Lebreton recalls: I said to my colleagues, 'Listen guys, on the 14

January, if the mission is successful, we will not be able to celebrate because
we'll be too busy. If it's not successful, if we don't hear from Huygens, we'll be
too sad to celebrate'.

So I convinced myself, and everyone else, that we should celebrate the day before.
We had a very nice dinner on the 13 January - with more than 200 people.

The following morning, Esa's mission control centre on the outskirts of Darmstadt
steadily filled with dignitaries, scientists and journalists - I was among them.

The atmosphere was as tense as one would expect.

After powering up in the early hours, Huygens hit the top of Titan's atmosphere (at
an altitude of 1,270km) just after 09:00 GMT.

Artist impression of the Huygens probe approaching Titan's atmosphere(Esa \/

Getty Images)
Artist impression of the Huygens probe approaching Titan's atmosphere
(Esa / Getty Images)
As the drag increased, the craft's heatshield was enveloped with a purple glow as
surrounding gases were heated to temperatures exceeding those on the surface of the

In the control room at Darmstadt, team members patiently waited for a transmission
showing that Huygens had survived hypersonic entry.

The first signal that Huygens was alive and descending on the parachute, we got
from the Green Bank telescope in West Virginia. This was a very emotional moment I
can tell you, says Dr Lebreton.

David Southwood, Esas then director of science, said on the day: We're doing
something today which will last for centuries.

The onboard science instruments began collecting measurements as Huygens parachuted

down through the thick atmosphere.

Part of the Huygens' parachute mechanism(Getty Images)

Part of the Huygens' parachute mechanism
(Getty Images)
After a two-hour-27-minute descent, Huygens finally thumped down on to Titan's
frozen surface.

John Zarnecki, chief investigator for Huygens' Surface Science Package (SSP)
experiment, memorably described the surface as having the properties of creme
brulee (although this was later interpreted as the lander having hit a pebble).

It was nothing short of a triumph, the furthest from Earth humans have ever landed
a spacecraft, by some margin. Dr Lebreton remembers:

I was the project scientist and my job was to ensure that all the scientists
responsible for the instruments, would get the data they had been hoping for for 20

When I saw the data coming back, I said: 'Oh, we have done a good job. We can
begin work'.

Esa eagerly presented the first pictures from this haze-shrouded world, including a
staggering aerial view of Titan's landscape showing what appeared to be drainage
channels cut in the ice.

Mosaic image of a river channel and ridge on Titan(Esa)

Mosaic image of a river channel and ridge on Titan
Another iconic picture showed Huygens' landing site scattered with rounded pebbles
of ice.

Unfortunately, a crucial instruction was missed in a sequence of commands sent up

to Cassini.

This simple error caused the loss of one of the two channels used to transmit
information from Huygens, leading to gaps in data from some experiments.

Only half the expected number of images were returned and measurements from the
probe's Doppler Wind Experiment (DWE) were completely lost.

However, once again, careful planning helped save the day.

The radio telescope network we set up on Earth recovered the signal that would
have been lost otherwise, says Dr Lebreton.

On the day we were quite sad, but we quickly realised we had not lost much.

Views from
another world
The Huygens landing remains an amazing achievement, and long in the coming for
those scientists like Jean-Pierre Lebreton who had been with the project since the

Of the pictures sent back by the camera, Roger Bonnet says: When I saw the first
images of 'rivers' on this moon of Saturn, I said: 'My goodness. We promised that,
and we got it'.

Other onboard experiments profiled the atmosphere, including its temperature,

pressure, density and composition, as well as wind strength and direction.

In addition, the probe carried a CD-Rom with drawings, paintings, messages and
poems from people around the world.

It also carried music created specially for the disc by two French musicians.

Huygens is still sitting quietly on Titan's surface waiting for Nasa and Esa to
recover the CD, says Dr Bonnet, although this isnt likely to happen for decades
or even centuries.

One of the two data discs(Nasa)

One of the two data discs
This was mirrored by Nasas decision to attach a DVD to Cassini carrying the
signatures of 616,400 people from 81 countries.

The signatures had been scanned from postcards and letters containing messages of
support sent to Nasa.

The effort was described as a message in a bottle to Saturn.

While Huygens provided ground truth, Cassini's radar was able to peer through
Titan's clouds from further away.

This revealed a world with its own seasonal cycle, where wind and rain shaped the
surface to form river channels, seas, dunes and shorelines.

A false-colour mosaic of Titan made from infrared data - revealing differences in

the composition of surface materials around hydrocarbon lakes(Nasa)
A false-colour mosaic of Titan made from infrared data - revealing differences in
the composition of surface materials around hydrocarbon lakes
Titan is a mind-bending, through-the-looking-glass version of Earth.

The average temperature of -179C means that mountains are made of ice, sand is made
of plastic and liquid methane assumes many of the roles played by water on Earth.

Around Titan's northern pole are three dark methane seas, the largest of which is
bigger than Lake Superior in North America. Cassini even resolved gentle (2cm-high)
waves and the glint of sunlight reflecting off liquid hydrocarbons.

The orbiter and the probe really provided a very complementary data-set. They will
surely be used for the next 20 years - maybe the next 50, says Dr Lebreton.

Cassini's looping, elliptical orbit around Saturn was carefully choreographed to

enable multiple close flybys of Saturn's many moons.

Because Saturn's such a rich system, one instrument will want to look one place,
another instrument will want to look another, says Earl Maize.

It's taken an awful lot of human engineering to integrate all those different
scientific objectives into one seamless series of activities.

During its tour of Saturn, Cassini made a total of 127 close passes of Titan during
its mission and 22 of an icy saturnian moon called Enceladus.

It was undoubtedly Enceladus that served up the biggest surprise of the mission.

Pictures from Voyager 2 revealed a smooth, crater-less surface, hinting at some

ongoing geological activity. But Cassinis instruments detected jets of icy
particles gushing out into space from fissures at the south pole known as tiger

What's more, scientists showed that these jets of water were coming from a deep
global ocean beneath the outer shell.

Cassini has been the validation of the theory that you can make liquid water
beneath an icy crust even though you are very far from the Sun, says Nicolas
Altobelli, Esa's Cassini project scientist.

Cassini even flew through Enceladus' plumes and used one of its instruments to
taste what was in it. It's got organic material in it, and a variety of rocky
dust, says Jim Green.

That tells us that underneath that ice crust, water is being heated just like the
hydrothermal vents heating oceans on Earth.

Cassini's view of the icy crust on Enceladus(Nasa)

Cassini's view of the icy crust on Enceladus
All of this suggested Enceladus could be one of the best targets in our Solar
System to look for extra-terrestrial life.

Indeed, the decision to destroy Cassini is in part because Nasa can't risk the
orbiter one day crashing into moons like Enceladus and contaminating them with
terrestrial microbes.

As for Saturn itself, Jim Green explains: It looks a lot like Jupiter in many ways
- its mostly hydrogen and helium and there are huge storms that we dont quite
understand the origin of.

The huge storm at Saturns north pole is surrounded by a unique six-sided jet
stream known as the hexagon.

False-colour image of a giant spinning storm at Saturn's north pole - it

resembles a deep red rose(Nasa)
False-colour image of a giant spinning storm at Saturn's north pole - it resembles
a deep red rose
Wider view of Saturn's north pole showing the hexagon-shaped jet stream(Nasa)
Wider view of Saturn's north pole showing the hexagon-shaped jet stream
And then there are those majestic pieces of planetary ornamentation - the rings.

How and when the rings formed remains one of the giant planet's biggest mysteries.

Cassini's view of Saturn's spiralling rings(Nasa)

Cassini's view of Saturn's spiralling rings
In August, scientists announced hints that they might be comparatively young,
perhaps just 100 million years old.

If thats the case, it means that we just happen to be living during a special
period in Solar System history where Saturn is adorned with these magnificent

An ending,
and a beginning?
The Cassini-Huygens mission has left an indelible mark on human knowledge.

Hundreds of thousands of science observations have led to the publication of nearly

4,000 research papers.

Artist depiction of a submarine on Titan(Nasa)

Artist depiction of a submarine on Titan
And there are numerous ideas for follow-up missions, including a submarine to
explore Titans methane seas and an orbiter to look for life in Enceladus ocean.

Enceladus tourism poster(Nasa)

Enceladus tourism poster
But the legacy of Cassini-Huygens is felt in many other ways.

Like the Hubble telescope's images of the distant cosmos, Cassini's iconic pictures
of the Saturn system have penetrated popular culture. They can be found on bedroom
walls, as computer screen-savers and have influenced big budget Hollywood movies.

Dr Carolyn Porco, who leads Cassini's imaging team, served as science consultant on
JJ Abrams' 2009 re-boot of Star Trek.

The film features a major nod to the real-life mission in a scene where the USS
Enterprise conceals itself within Titan's dense atmosphere.

As a joint endeavour between Esa, Nasa and Italy's space agency Asi, Cassini-
Huygens demonstrated what could be achieved when major space powers pool their
resources and expertise.

We all come from different countries, from different cultures and we have worked
spectacularly well together, says Prof Michele Dougherty, from Imperial College
London, chief scientist for the instrument on Cassinis designed to measure
Saturn's magnetic field.

Today, there are no plans for an international space venture on the scale of

There are challenges. The time taken for Esa to develop missions has increased
since the 80s, while Nasas development times have stayed the same, making it
difficult to synchronise the space agencies schedules.

Earl Maize says a repeat of Cassini-Huygens may be a little while coming. All the
more reason, perhaps, to savour the missions final bow.

On 15 September, Cassini will make a fateful dive into the planet's cloud tops.

It will be destroyed in the atmosphere, becoming a part of the planet it was

designed to study.
Artist depiction of the view from Cassini as it falls towards Saturn
Artist depiction of the view from Cassini as it falls towards Saturn
It's an exciting time, but also a bit of a sad time, says Linda Spilker.

What's happening is both an ending and a beginning. It's the end of data
collection. But it's the beginning of a legacy where the scientists and engineers
will go out and become a part of other missions, taking what they've learned from
Cassini with them.

It looks as if the memory of this mission will be with us for many years to come.

Find out more

- Read about the Cassini-Huygens mission on the Nasa or Esa websites.

- BBC News will have live coverage of the ending of the mission on both TV and

- Radio 4's Inside Science will preview the climax at 16:30 BST on Thursday 14

- Horizon on BBC Two will review the mission on Monday 18 September at 21:00 BST.

- The Sky At Night's Cassini: The Gamechanger is still available on iPlayer.


Paul Rincon
Paul Kerley
Sue Bridge
Kathryn Westcott
Nasa, JPL/Caltech, Esa, Getty Images, Topfoto, Alamy, BBC
- Ralph Lorenz (2017)
Nasa/Esa/Asi Cassini-Huygens Owners Workshop Manual
(Haynes Publishing Group)
- Wing Ip, Daniel Gautier, Toby Owen (2004)
The genesis of Cassini-Huygens
(European Space Agency Publications Division)
- James Oberg (2004)
Titan Calling
(Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers)
- Roger-Maurice Bonnet (2004)
Cassini-Huygens in the European context
(European Space Agency Publications Division)
Publication date
Thursday 14 September 2017
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