After six-year odyssey, probe arrives at Saturn

After a journey of more than six-and-a-half years, the international probe Cassini will tomorrow start its investigation of Saturn, gliding between two of its rings and entering an orbit around the mysterious planet.

After a journey of more than six-and-a-half years, the international probe Cassini will tomorrow start its investigation of Saturn, gliding between two of its rings and entering an orbit around the mysterious planet.

Having been launched from Cape Canaveral in 1997 and travelled 2.2 billion miles across the solar system, scientists hope the craft's planned four-year investigation of the planet and its 31 known moons will provide new information on the origins of its rings and explanation of their colours.

In that time Cassini, a $3bn (£1.6bn) joint US-European venture, will orbit the Saturn system 76 times and have 52 close encounters with seven of its moons. One of the highlights of the project should be the landing of a mini-probe called Huygens on Saturn's largest moon, Titan, in January 2005. Titan is the second-largest moon in the solar system and the only one with a stable atmosphere. Scientists are unsure what the Huygens probe, constructed by the European Space Agency, will find. "Titan is like a time machine taking us to the past to see what Earth might have been like," said Dennis Matson, Cassini project member at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Ed Weiler, at Nasa headquarters in Washington, said: "The system represents an unsurpassed laboratory, where we can look for answers to many fundamental questions about the physics, chemistry and evolution of the planets and the conditions that give rise to life."

Cassini is already sending back remarkable pictures of its approach to Saturn, whose orbit it will join at 00.47 GMT tomorrow by firing its main engine to create drag and drift towards the planet. As it passes a gap in the planet's rings it will use its large main antenna as a shield against possible debris.

At 1.12 GMT the engine should start a 96-minute burn to cut Cassini's speed by 1,400mph. That should put it in an elongated orbit.

If something goes wrong, however, Cassini will fly right past Saturn and into space. Mission control would be helpless to intervene because it takes more than an hour for signals from Earth to reach Saturn.

The engine burn should end at 2.48 GMT. At this point Cassini should have reached its closest point to the planet, just 12,1243 miles above Saturn's multi-coloured clouds.

Most of what is already known about the planet is due to the Voyager explorations in 1980-81 and the Pioneer II project. Cassini will be the first probe to orbit the planet and conduct extensive observations.

Its twin probes are named after the 17th-century astronomers Christiaan Huygens, who discovered Titan and Saturn's rings, and Jean- Dominique Cassini, who pinpointed several other of the planet's moons and a gap in its ring system.

Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun and the secondlargest in the solar system, with an equatorial diameter of 74,130 miles.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
News
i100
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot