After a seven-year cruise through the Solar System, the joint NASA/ESA/ASI Cassini-Huygens spacecraft last night successfully entered orbit around Saturn. The Cassini orbiter is now ready to begin its four-year survey of the planet and its moons, while the Huygens probe will be prepared for the next major mission milestone: its release toward the largest moon, Titan, in December.
“This shows international space co-operation at its best,” said ESA’s Director of Science, Prof. David Southwood, after confirmation of the orbit insertion. “Few deep space planetary missions have carried the hopes of such a large community of scientists and space enthusiasts around the world. Congratulations to the teams in the US and Europe who made this possible and to all participants in the programme, who have a lot to do over the years ahead.” The Saturn Orbit Insertion was the last and most critical manoeuvre performed by the spacecraft to achieve its operational orbit. If it had failed, the spacecraft would have just flown past Saturn and got lost in the outer Solar System.
Cassini-Huygens was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on 15 October 1997, atop a Titan 4B/Centaur, the most powerful expendable launch vehicle in the US fleet at the time. To reach Saturn it had to perform a series of gravity assist manoeuvres around Venus (April 1998 and June 1999), Earth (August 1999) and Jupiter (December 2000).
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