25 Apr 2008

New life for Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn

Professor John Zarnecki

Professor John Zarnecki

News that the international NASA/ESA Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn has been extended by two years means more opportunity for space scientists at The Open University. Cassini's mission originally had been scheduled to end in July 2008.

The historic spacecraft's stunning discoveries and images have revolutionized our knowledge of Saturn and its moons.

UK researchers have played key roles in the mission instruments and the scientific discoveries. Professor John Zarnecki, director of the OU’s Centre for Earth, Planetary, Space and Astronomical Research (CEPSAR), was the lead scientist on the Huygens probe that landed on the surface of one of Saturn’s moons Titan in January 2005.

“Since its landing, analysis of the Huygens data has provided a wealth of new insights on this enigmatic moon. Further work from Cassini will enhance and extend what has been learnt from the Huygens data. Our involvement in Cassini-Huygens has exceeded our wildest expectations and now there is a chance for science to discover even more,” Professor Zarnecki says.

Cassini-Huygens' observations of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, have given scientists a glimpse of what Earth might have been like before life evolved. They now believe Titan possesses many parallels to Earth, including lakes, rivers, channels, dunes, rain, snow, clouds, mountains and possibly volcanoes – but made out of unfamiliar materials.

Dr Simon Green, principal investigator on the Cosmic Dust Analyser instrument on Cassini welcomes the opportunity to further study the interaction between Saturn’s rings and moon systems. “This extra time will give us the chance to make direct sampling of the Moon Enceladus where we’ve already discovered water particles with impurities.”

Based on findings from Cassini, scientists think liquid water may be just beneath the surface of Enceladus. That's why the small moon, only one-tenth the size of Titan and one-seventh the size of Earth's moon, is one of the highest-priority targets for the extended mission.

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