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‘Over The Moon’ At Saturn


UK scientists involved in the Cassini space mission were ‘over the Moon’ after the spacecraft’s 100,000 km per hour white knuckle ride courtesy of Saturn’s gravity which successfully completed the critical manoeuvre to place Cassini in orbit around the ringed planet. ‘I’ve waited 15 years for this moment,’ said Dr Andrew Coates of the UK’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory and Co-Investigator on the Cassini spacecraft’s Plasma Electron Spectrometer,’ and now our 4-year tour of discovery can really begin’.

Speaking from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena California, Dr. Michele Dougherty of Imperial College London and Principal Investigator for the magnetometer instrument on Cassini, said,’ the spacecraft performed superbly tonight and critical data was taken during the 95 minute engine burn period. Analysis of this will begin in a few hours as soon as the data is transmitted back to Earth.’

Prof. Carl Murray from Queen Mary, University of London, involved on the Cassini cameras, was equally ecstatic,’ this is a remarkable achievement and a wonderful example of a successful, international collaboration. The arrival of the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft at Saturn heralds a new age in our understanding of this majestic planet and its retinue of moons and rings. I have no doubt that the wealth of data to be returned will also provide unique insights into the origin and evolution of planetary systems. The next four years will be tremendously exciting for everybody."

A jubilant and relieved Prof. John Zarnecki of the UK’s Open University added, ’For me its been 7 years in the planning, 7 years of travel and 95 minutes of purgatory – but now we’ve made it and the next stop is Titan’. For Prof. Zarnecki, Principal and Co-Investigator on two key instruments onboard the Huygens probe currently piggy backing the Cassini mothership, there are still more nail-biting moments ahead. Huygens will separate from Cassini on the 25 December this year and parachute down through the nitrogen-rich atmosphere of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, to land on the surface on the 14 January 2005.

The Saturn Orbit Insertion was the last and most critical manoeuvre for the Cassini orbiter and the spacecraft, which is in perfect shape, will now commence science operations during its 76 orbits of the ringed planet.

Over the next few months the European Space Agency’s scientists, including Prof. John Zarnecki and colleagues, will prepare for the release of the Huygens probe.

Julia Maddock | alfa
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