Cassini: The First One Thousand Days
The spacecraft's journey in orbit around this ringed world has provided startling discoveries and unprecedented views of Saturn's atmosphere, rings and moons, with more surprises doubtless still to come
On July 1, 2004, after traveling for seven years across interplanetary space, the American-built Cassini spacecraft and its European-built Huygens probe glided flawlessly into orbit around the planet Saturn. At that point, at a distance 10 times farther from the Sun than is the Earth, the six-metric-ton, bus-sized craft became the first artificial moon of Saturn and the farthest robotic outpost humanity had ever established around the Sun. Six months later, the Huygens probe drifted on a piece of fabric through the atmosphere of Saturn's largest moon, capturing panoramic images as it fell, and after two-and-a-half hours came to permanent rest on the dark equatorial plains of Titan. In another spectacular first, a device of our making had made landfall on a moon in the outer solar system. It was a Jules Verne adventure come true.
In the early 1980s the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft passed through the Saturnian system, but Cassini's expedition has been different. Our journey back to Saturn has afforded us the kind of insight and scientific perspective available only through prolonged, systematic investigation. In my mind, our journey has been, and continues to be, both part of and a metaphor for a much larger human quest: to discover the universal interconnectedness of all that surrounds us, and to come to understand a bit of our own origins. And Cassini's offerings in all these regards have not disappointed. The images that it has returned have been an explorer's dream—breathtaking, dazzling and informative—and mission scientists expect even greater things to come.