As the Cassini spacecraft nears the end of a long journey rich with scientific and technical accomplishments, it is already having a powerful influence on future exploration. In revealing that Saturn’s moon Enceladus has many of the ingredients needed for life, the mission has inspired a pivot to the exploration of “ocean worlds” that has been sweeping planetary science over the past decade.
The spacecraft’s descent into Saturn’s atmosphere is planned for September 15, 2017.
Many lessons learned during Cassini’s mission are being applied to planning NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, planned for launch in the 2020s. Europa Clipper will fly by the icy ocean moon, dozens of times to investigate its potential habitability, using an orbital tour design derived from the way Cassini has explored Saturn. The Europa Clipper mission will orbit the giant planet — Jupiter in this case — using gravitational assists from its large moons to maneuver the spacecraft into repeated close encounters with Europa. This is similar to the way Cassini’s tour designers used the gravity of Saturn’s moon Titan to continually shape their spacecraft’s course.
Returning to Saturn
Cassini also performed 127 close flybys of Saturn’s haze-enshrouded moon Titan, showing it to be a remarkably complex factory for organic chemicals — a natural laboratory for prebiotic chemistry. The mission investigated the cycling of liquid methane between clouds in its skies and great seas on its surface. By pulling back the veil on Titan, Cassini has ushered in a new era of extraterrestrial oceanography – plumbing the depths of alien seas — and delivered a fascinating example of earthlike processes occurring with chemistry and at temperatures markedly different from our home planet.
In the decades following Cassini, scientists hope to return to the Saturn system to follow up on the mission’s many discoveries. Mission concepts under consideration include spacecraft to drift on the methane seas of Titan and fly through the Enceladus plume to collect and analyze samples for signs of biology.
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter.
Reference : NASA