Mission Cup 2021 Semi-Finalist: Cassini Huygens – an amazing voyage to the outer solar system

This post was written by Brendan Mccormick Kilbride, who nominated Cassini Huygens for Mission Cup 2021.


The Cassini-Huygens mission was a collaboration by NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency to study Saturn, its moons and its spectacular ring system. The Cassini spacecraft was launched in 1997 and carried the Huygens probe as part of its payload. Over the next 20 years, Cassini travelled outwards through the solar system, passing Venus, Earth, Mars and Jupiter on its slingshot trajectory, before spending 13 years in orbit around Saturn. The Huygens probe was launched from Cassini on Christmas Day, 2004, and later made the first ever landing on a body of the outer solar system, Saturn’s largest moon, Titan

A single frame image of Saturn and five of its moons captured by Cassini. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute (https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/styles/full_width_feature/public/thumbnails/image/pia12797-1600×900.jpg)

Cassini’s observations are remarkable in their scope and diversity. Its flyby of Jupiter produced the most detailed images yet of the great planet’s atmospheric circulation. Cassini’s observations allowed the identification of seven new moons orbiting Saturn, including Daphnis, which lies in a narrow gap within the planet’s dynamic ring structure. From close fly-bys of the moon Enceladus, Cassini observed vast geysers ejecting water and carbon dioxide into space and found evidence for liquid water beneath the surface, a vast salty internal ocean which is now among the leading candidates in the solar system as a potential home for alien microbial life.

Image of Saturn’s rings captured by Cassini. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute (https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/styles/full_width_feature/public/thumbnails/image/pia14943-full.jpg)

Arguably the biggest impact of this mission however is the transformation of our knowledge of Titan. Between the Huygens measurements made during its landing and time on the surface, and countless Cassini orbits, we have learned much about this large body which was previously obscured by its dense nitrogen atmosphere. Astonishingly, for such a distant world, Titan has surprisingly similarities to Earth, notably in its landscape. Cassini images reveal lakes, rivers, and seas, though unlike Earth these are composed of liquid hydrocarbons such as methane and ethane. Similarly to the water cycle on Earth, we can observe on Titan a remarkable interplay of weather and climate, erosion and deposition, with changing landforms as a result. The atmosphere of Titan, rich in organic compounds, is a fascinating natural lab to consider the interplay of complex carbon-based chemistry with sunlight, which may in turn offer interesting research avenues for scientists studying the origins of life on Earth.

Infrared images of Saturn’s moon Titan created using data from the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) instrument on board Cassini. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Stéphane Le Mouélic, University of Nantes, Virginia Pasek, University of Arizona (https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/styles/full_width_feature/public/thumbnails/image/pia21923-nasa.jpg)

I’m voting for Cassini-Huygens to win Mission Cup as it has transformed our knowledge of Saturn, and opened new research pathways in exobiology, with the internal ocean of Enceladus and organic-rich atmosphere of Titan both representing intriguing possibilities as host environments for extraterrestrial life. 

Further information:

Head over to our twitter page @EarthSolarSystm to cast your vote in Mission Cup 2021!

About aimeesmith1995

I am a 2nd year PhD student at The University of Manchester studying the formation of chondrules in the early Solar System. I experimentally reproduce chondrules in the lab using a furnace to determine the temperatures and cooling rates required to form the various types observed in chondritic meteorites.
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