Launched in 1997, the Cassini mission to Saturn sent it’s final images back to earth last week before plunging into the planet in a planned manoeuvre. It spent 13 years in orbit around the ringed planet, carried out some spectacular science and beamed some great images back to earth.
One of the most important had to have been the photograph of water plumes bursting from the surface of Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons. Long thought to be inert world’s, these photos helped cement the view that the moons of planets in our solar system are the new frontier in the search for life.
In addition to the main mission, the Cassini probe carried a lander called Huygens which landed on the surface of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon and sent us back images, audio and measurements of this strange world. Titan was found to have an atmosphere of predominantly nitrogen with gaseous clouds made from ethane and methane and surface liquids of ethane and methane that behave like water on earth raining and flowing. Water ice is frozen so hard it behaves like solid rock and is weathered and eroded by the methane and ethane environment. Strange indeed.
But like the Hubble Space Telescope, Cassini will perhaps be best remembered amongst the public for the stunning images it has collected of Saturn and it’s magnificent ring system. Like many before me, my first views of Saturn through a telescope will stay with me forever and the Cassini mission brought this magnificent celestial world a little bit closer to Earth.