Lord of the Rings, Saturn-Style

Author:  Crystal Snyder
Institution:  University of Lethbridge
Date:  July 2004

Just one week after Cassini-Huygens became the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn, mission scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., have released stunning images of the ringed planet and announced some exciting results.

"The images are mind-boggling, just mind-boggling," said Dr. Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team leader at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo. "It is remarkable how startling it is to see these images for the first time."

After a seven-year, billion-mile journey through the Solar System, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft entered Saturn’s orbit on June 30, passing closer to Saturn’s rings than any spacecraft before it.

Saturn’s rings are mostly ice, but analysis of the rings with Cassini’s visible and infrared mapping spectrometer has revealed an unknown impurity. This impurity is remarkably similar to materials that Cassini observed in Saturn’s moon, Phoebe, during a recent fly-by. Mission scientists suggest that Saturn’s rings may have been formed from a planetary body like Phoebe, which is a captured asteroid from the outer Solar System.

Beyond the rings lies Saturn’s magnetosphere, a magnetic bubble of charged particles invisible to the human eye. Cassini’s magnetospheric imaging instrument has given scientists their first glimpse at this huge, blob-like cloud of gas sweeping along with the moon Titan in orbit around Saturn.

On July 2, Cassini flew past Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. On the first of its 44 passes by Titan, Cassini sent startling new images of Titan’s surface.

"We’re seeing a totally alien surface," said Dr. Elizabeth Turtle of the University of Arizona-Tucson. "We’ve got some exciting work cut out for us."

Titan’s icy surface may be home to many of the chemical compounds that preceded life on Earth. In December, Cassini will release the Huygens probe, which will land on Titan to search for these chemicals.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., designed, developed, and assembled the Cassini orbiter, and is now managing the flight operations.

The latest images and information on the Cassini-Huygens mission can be found at: