NASA’s Cassini spacecraft reached Saturn on June 30, 2004 and has spent a decade exploring the ringed planet and its 62 moons. Even after 10 years, the Cassini spacecraft continues to deliver exciting discoveries about the gas giant.
Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement, “"By having a decade there with Cassini, we have been privileged to witness never-before-seen events that are changing our understanding of how planetary systems form and what conditions might lead to habitats for life.” NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, along with the Huygens lander, was launched on Oct. 15, 1997 and entered Saturn’s orbit on June 30.
NASA said of the spacecraft and lander, “The 12 scientific instruments on the Cassini orbiter will conduct in-depth studies of the planet, its moons, rings and magnetic environment. The six instruments on the Huygens probe, which will be dispatched from Cassini during its third orbit of Saturn, will provide our first direct sampling of Titan’s atmospheric chemistry and the first photographs of its hidden surface.” The Huygens lander landed on Saturn’s moon Titan in 2005.
The spacecraft was named after Giovanni Cassini, the Italian astronomer who discovered four of Saturn’s moons and observed the division of the planet’s rings. The lander was named after Christiaan Huygens, the Dutch astronomers who discovered Titan and also observed Saturn’s rings.
According to NASA, Cassini completed its primary scientific mission in 2008 and the space agency has extended the spacecraft’s mission around Saturn through 2017.
Some of the top Cassini discoveries include the observation of icy plumes on Saturn moon Enceladus as well as a hidden ocean on that moon. The formation of a new moon within Saturn’s rings was also observed as was Saturn’s “dancing auroras” and the planet’s hexagonal storms. NASA's top 10 Cassini discoveries can be viewed here.
Last year, Cassini was in position to capture a portrait of Earth and NASA launched the “Wave at Saturn” campaign to celebrate the event.
A video of Cassini's arrival at Saturn, as awell as a look ahead to its future, can be viewed below.