In one of the most charming moments in astronomy, Galileo, who discovered Saturn’s rings in 1610, took them to be handles. A portable planet.
Today, in one of the most thrilling moments—and, for the mission’s scientists and engineers, perhaps the saddest—the orbiter Cassini-Huygens plunged toward Saturn at nearly 80,000 miles an hour to incinerate itself. “That would be the end of the spacecraft,” a voice announced at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in California, as the team lost Cassini’s signal.
The program manager, Earl Maize, congratulated everyone and then basically did a mic drop. “I'm gonna call this the end of mission,” he said. Extremely well-earned hugs ensued. You can watch the postgame show here.
Looking forward, NASA still has a ton of data (scientifically speaking) to sift through, including the spacecraft’s closest sniff of Saturn’s atmosphere as it melted the orbiter into nothing. Some of that data could drop hints about the formation of the universe.
Cassini, which set out on its seven-year trek in 1997 and had been sending back images and data from Saturn since 2004, began making bolder sorties late last year as it neared the end of its fuel and its life. Since the spring it had swooped between the innermost ring and the planet itself, Star Wars style, to send back ever more granular data and ever grander photos.
Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus are two of the most promising places in our solar system for the discovery of extraterrestrial life. A few minutes before 8 am Eastern Time, Cassini hurtled to its end. NASA and its partners in the mission, the European and Italian space agencies, didn’t want to risk the spacecraft’s crashing into one of the planet’s moons someday and contaminating them with alien life. That would be us.
Here are 11 of the best pictures ever to come out of anybody’s trip abroad.
Saturn was the most distant of the five planets known to the ancients. In 1610, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei was the first to gaze at Saturn through a telescope. To his surprise, he saw a pair of objects on either side of the planet. He sketched them as separate spheres and wrote that Saturn appeared to be triple-bodied. In 1659, Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens, using a more powerful telescope than Galileo's, proposed that Saturn was surrounded by a thin, flat ring.
The Ringed Planet
In 1675, Italian-born astronomer Jean-Dominique Cassini discovered a "division" between what are now called the A and B rings. It is now known that the gravitational influence of Saturn's moon Mimas is responsible for the Cassini Division, which is 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometers) wide.
Like Jupiter, Saturn is made mostly of hydrogen and helium. Its volume is 755 times greater than that of Earth. Winds in the upper atmosphere reach 1,600 feet (500 meters) per second in the equatorial region. (In contrast, the strongest hurricane-force winds on Earth top out at about 360 feet, or 110 meters, per second.) These superfast winds, combined with heat rising from within the planet's interior, cause the yellow and gold bands visible in the atmosphere.
Saturn's ring system is the most extensive and complex in the solar system, extending hundreds of thousands of kilometers from the planet. In the early 1980s, NASA's two Voyager spacecraft revealed that Saturn's rings are made mostly of water ice. They also found "braided" rings, ringlets, and "spokes," dark features in the rings that circle the planet at different rates from that of the surrounding ring material. Material in the rings ranges in size from a few micrometers to several tens of meters, and the size and structure of the rings are partly a product of the gravitational influenceof several of Saturn's moons, known as "shepherd moons." Two of Saturn's small moons orbit within gaps in the main rings, and the rings are divided into seven sections.
Saturn has 52 known natural satellites, or moons, and there are probably many more waiting to be discovered. Saturn's largest satellite, Titan, is a bit bigger than the planet Mercury. (Titan is the second-largest moon in the solar system; only Jupiter's moon Ganymede is bigger.) Titan is shrouded in a thick, nitrogen-rich atmosphere that might be similar to what Earth's was like long ago. Further study of this moon promises to reveal much about planetary formation and, perhaps, about the early days of Earth. Saturn also has many smaller "icy" satellites. From Enceladus, which shows evidence of recent (and ongoing) surface changes, to Iapetus, with one hemisphere darker than asphalt and the other as bright as snow, each of Saturn's satellites is unique.
Though Saturn's magnetic field is not as huge as Jupiter's, it is still 578 times as powerful as Earth's. Saturn, the rings, and many of the satellites lie totally within Saturn's enormous magnetosphere, the region of space in which the behavior of electrically charged particles is influenced more by Saturn's magnetic field than by the solar wind. Hubble Space Telescope images show that Saturn's polar regions have aurorae similar to Earth's. Aurorae occur when charged particles spiral into a planet's atmosphere along magnetic field lines.
Missions to Saturn
Voyagers 1 and 2 flew by and photographed Saturn in 1981. The next chapter in our knowledge of Saturn took place between 2005 and 2017, as the Cassini spacecraft continued its exploration of the Saturn system. The Huygens probe descended through Titan's atmosphere in January 2005, collecting data on the atmosphere and surface. Cassini has orbited Saturn more than 70 times during a 12-year study of the planet and its moons, rings, and magnetosphere. With its fuel running out, it drew closer to saturn than ever in late 2016, showing an up-close view of the planet for the first time. Cassini is sponsored by NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency.
—Text courtesy NASA/JPL