Well, it looks like the long seven year journey across the tiny sea of our local space is nearing its milestone end for the Cassini Probe tomorrow. At around 19:36 PST the probe will begin firing its braking thrusters for 96 minutes – and it will be about a hour and a half later before we’ll know if the maneuver was successful.
If all is successful, the probe will decelerate by 1,400 MPH to continue its 47 plannened orbits of Saturn over the next 4 years. The Huygens Probe is schedule to be released from Cassini on Christmas Eve of 2004 to begin its three week journey to Titan, where it will land. It’s already passed thorough Saturn’s unusual magnetic field, feeling and describing its shape to us.
The probe, as it carries on through its insertion maneuver will pass behind (from the Earth’s perspective) various ring grouping of Saturn, each ring with its own composition and liklihood for radio interference. So I imagine it will be particularly stressful for the scientists responsible for the craft, not to mention the managers of the programs responsible for their own careers and funding.
This mission is particularly nifty because the US is working with the European Space Agency who have contributed the Huygens portion of the mission. Cassini will release the Huygens probe at a velocity of twelve inches per second, and spinning it at seven revolutions per minute. Five days later, Cassini will turn to watch the sleeping Huygens as he coasts toward Titan during the next few days.
Titan has an atmosphere that extends about 600 miles into space, and Huygens will awaken 10 minutes before encountering its outermost reaches. Huygens will only be alive for a maximum of three hours, spending two and a half of them learning all it can about Titan as it descends, snapping over 1,000 photos, ever-slowing, eventually with the help of parachutes, to land on Titan’s surface, where it is only expected to live another three minutes. Even if Huygens lives past another thirty minutes, Cassini will turn its attention away from Huygens and back to Earth, telling us what Huygens discovered.
Recently our President, Mr. Bush, announced a new focus upon space exploration, particularly returning people to the moon, and landing people on Mars. I’m not certain this new focus is not a political tactic to divert our attention from more pressing things at home or not – particularly some very inhumane and mean-sprited things his administration are engaged in. But regardless of political concerns, the scientific benefits that result will be wonderful.