You are on page 1of 5

NEWS FEATURE

A PLANET APART
Saturn shimmers in
this view from above
its north pole, as seen
by Cassini in 2013.

CASSINIS JOURNEY
Over the course of a primary mission and two MISSION TIMELINE:
extensions named after times of the Saturn year,
the spacecraft explored the planet and its moons
from varying distances and angles (see orbital Prime mission Equinox mission Solstice mission
schematic at right). After years of climbing to (200408) (200810) (201017)
new heights above the planets northern polar
region, Cassini is now finishing a series of 22 dives
SATURN: NASA/JPL-CALTECH/SSI/CORNELL; CASSINI: NASA/JPL;
between the giant planet and its rings. ORBITAL SCHEMATIC: NASA/JET PROPULSION LABORATORY-CALTECH

5 1 2 | NAT U R E | VO L 5 4 8 | 3 1 AUG U S T 2 0 1 7

2
0
1
7
M
a
c
m
i
l
l
a
n
P
u
b
l
i
s
h
e
r
s
L
i
m
i
t
e
d
,
p
a
r
t
o
f
S
p
r
i
n
g
e
r
N
a
t
u
r
e
.
A
l
l
r
i
g
h
t
s
r
e
s
e
r
v
e
d
.
FEATURE NEWS

13 YEARS OF
CASSINI
T he f i r s t m i s s ion to orbit
BY ALEXANDRA WITZE

Saturn has built up a stunning


scientific legacy in its voyage
around the ringed planet and
its moons.

T
wenty years ago, in the wee hours of a muggy Florida morning, the
Cassini spacecraft lit up the skies as it blasted off from Cape Canaveral.
Now, after a 3.5-billion-kilometre journey and 13 years spent circling
Saturn, the orbiter is running low on fuel. On 15 September, Cassinis
controllers on Earth will send the craft plunging into Saturns cloudtops
to prevent it from accidentally crashing into and contaminating any moon
that might be able to harbour life.
Cassini will send data back to Earth right up until that incandescent
coda a fitting end for one of historys most successful interplanetary
missions. A joint venture between NASA, the European Space Agency and
the Italian Space Agency, Cassini was the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn. And
with much more time to gather science than the earlier fly-bys of Pioneer 11
in 1979, Voyager 1 in 1980 and Voyager 2 in 1981, the mission delivered
discoveries in spades, racking up an impressive list of findings as it looped
around the majestic planet, danced along its glorious rings and whizzed
past many of its bizarre moons. Cassini was a long wait, but it was definitely
worth it, says Linda Spilker, a planetary scientist at NASAs Jet Propulsion
Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and the missions project scientist. It
has so many incredible accomplishments we can be so proud of.
The spacecraft revealed the chaotic dynamics that shape Saturns rings,
found geysers spraying from the moon Enceladus and watched gigantic
storms roil the planets atmosphere. It observed seasons change for nearly
half of a Saturn year, as first the equinox and then the solstice passed,
transforming weather patterns. Over the life of Cassinis mission, Saturn
has become less of a stranger and revealed itself to be a vibrant system
churning with continual change. The spacecrafts observations became a
touchstone for understanding the complexity of gas-giant planets, a legacy
SATURN that NASAs Juno spacecraft is currently continuing at Jupiter.
Cassini also made history when it released the Huygens probe, which
became the first craft to touch down in the outer Solar System. After a
daring two-and-a-half hour descent to the surface of the moon Titan in
2005, Huygens sent back snapshots of a frozen floodplain littered with
rocks. Cassinis mapping later revealed Titan to be a world teeming with
hydrocarbon lakes and rivers, replenished by methane and ethane rain.
With no official plans to return to Saturn anytime soon, 15September
will mark the end of an era. On Cassinis final day, we will be watching the
signal as we go as deeply into the atmosphere as we can, says Spilker.
That day to say goodbye will be a tough day.

3 1 AUG U S T 2 0 1 7 | VO L 5 4 8 | NAT U R E | 5 1 3

2
0
1
7
M
a
c
m
i
l
l
a
n
P
u
b
l
i
s
h
e
r
s
L
i
m
i
t
e
d
,
p
a
r
t
o
f
S
p
r
i
n
g
e
r
N
a
t
u
r
e
.
A
l
l
r
i
g
h
t
s
r
e
s
e
r
v
e
d
.
NEWS FEATURE

ENCELADUS PLUMES
Geysers spray water
vapour and ice mixed
with organic molecules
into space.

A MENAGERIE OF MOONS
C assinis biggest surprises came as it studied
some of Saturns 60-plus moons, raising as
many questions as it answered.
Saturns largest moon, Cassini discovered
a world with complex chemistry similar to
Earths before life arose. In the 72 minutes
other instruments, revealing enormous dunes
of water ice coated with a hydrocarbon glaze,
which wind for hundreds of kilometres in wavy
Researchers finally solved the mystery of that Huygens survived on Titans surface, the bands near the equator. Liquid methane and
Iapetus which boasts one light-coloured side battery-powered lander snapped images of ethane rain down, forming rivers and lakes
and one dark side when they discovered a landscape strewn with frozen rocks and of hydrocarbons. Cassini captured images of
an enormous ring of material streaming off cloaked in an orange haze. From above, sunlight reflecting off these bodies of liquid
another of Saturns moons, Phoebe. Iapetus Cassini mapped the moon using radar and and even used radar to chart their bottoms,
seems to get its two-faced look as its leading
surface ploughs through Phoebes debris. And
in their study of how crater-pocked Mimas
wobbles on its axis, Cassini scientists realized
that the world may have either a buried ocean
or a stretched-out core.
A look at the planets littlest moons never
before seen up close uncovered a panoply
of strange shapes. Hyperion resembles a
sponge, and Pan has been compared to a
piece of space ravioli. Pandora features an
enormous impact crater, a scar from some
long-ago collision.
But the most astonishing observations
were of Titan and Enceladus. On Titan, PAN HYPERION MIMAS

THE RINGS
Just 100 metres or so thick, Saturns rings are
shaped by many moons and moonlets embedded

THE EVER-CHANGING RINGS


within. In this view, the moon Pandora can be seen
beyond the planets main rings.

S aturns rings the planets most iconic


feature are populated by billions of icy
particles. From afar, the rings appear fixed and
beautifully manicured bands. For example, little
Pan, just 28 kilometres across, has cleared a
wide path through the rings. Dark and bright
In Saturns F ring, a narrow band along the
outside edge of the main rings, Cassini found
ephemeral sprays of material called mini-jets
perfectly sculpted, but Cassini revealed some bands in the rings on either side of this gap (image, far right). The gravitational pull of the
of the processes that shape them, and showed reflect the pull of Pans gravity. Images taken nearby moon Prometheus probably causes
how dynamic they truly are. Ring features form, over the years revealed how some of Saturns ice particles in the ring to clump together like
change shape and vanish sometimes in a moons continuously shape and sculpt its snowballs.
matter of hours. rings a phenomenon that was not fully Those bigger objects then punch outwards,
Cassini discovered how the gravitational apparent until Cassini was able to watch them trailing particles behind them like a dusty veil
forces of even the smallest of Saturns moons over time. that can stretch up to 180kilometres long,
can help to shepherd ring particles into But the moons are not perfect shepherds. marring the otherwise perfect rings. Out here

5 1 4 | NAT U R E | VO L 5 4 8 | 3 1 AUG U S T 2 0 1 7

2
0
1
7
M
a
c
m
i
l
l
a
n
P
u
b
l
i
s
h
e
r
s
L
i
m
i
t
e
d
,
p
a
r
t
o
f
S
p
r
i
n
g
e
r
N
a
t
u
r
e
.
A
l
l
r
i
g
h
t
s
r
e
s
e
r
v
e
d
.
REFLECTIONS
ON TITAN
Sunlight glints
off lakes of liquid
hydrocarbons.

sketching out the depths through which a


ENCELADUS PLUMES, TITAN: NASA/JPL-CALTECH/UNIV. ARIZONA/UNIV. IDAHO; TITAN SURFACE:
ESA/NASA/JPL/UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA; PAN, HYPERION, MIMAS: NASA/JPL-CALTECH/SSI

future missions submersible might glide.


Even after all that, Enceladus stole the show.
Thought to be inert before Cassini arrived, the
moon actually spews ice and water vapour
from enormous fractures that decorate its
south-pole region like tiger stripes. Powered
by Saturns gravitational pull, the geysers
spurt out 200 kilograms of salty, organic-
laced material every second.
Cassini scientists were surprised to find
that this material contains small particles
of silica, which may be formed by the
interaction of water and rock at hydrothermal
vents deep inside Enceladus. On Earth,
similar deep-ocean vents are home to
microbes that thrive off chemical energy,
far from sunlight and so Enceladus has
vaulted to the top of the list of places to TITANS HAZY
search for extraterrestrial microbes. Planetary SURFACE
scientists are already plotting return missions Cobbles of ice as hard
to fly through Enceladuss plumes and sniff as rock punctuate this
for hints of life. alien landscape.

SHEPHERD MOON
The moon Pan clears
a pathway within the
rings known as the
Encke Gap.

on the fringes of the ring system, features such


THE RINGS: NASA/JPL/SSI; SHEPHERD MOON,
SMALL KINK: NASA/JPL-CALTECH/SSI

as these come and go.


Dramatic changes can also play out on
large scales. Around the Saturnian equinox, as
sunlight fell at a steep slant across the rings,
Cassini observed spoke-like features that rotate
with the rings much like the pattern in a bicycle
wheel. These spokes, which may be huge stripes SMALL KINK
of electrostatically charged particles drifting At Saturns F ring, gravitational disturbances have
just above and below the rings, can form and caused ring particles to clump together and kick
disappear over the course of a few hours. out a dusty-looking jet of material.

3 1 AUG U S T 2 0 1 7 | VO L 5 4 8 | NAT U R E | 5 1 5

2
0
1
7
M
a
c
m
i
l
l
a
n
P
u
b
l
i
s
h
e
r
s
L
i
m
i
t
e
d
,
p
a
r
t
o
f
S
p
r
i
n
g
e
r
N
a
t
u
r
e
.
A
l
l
r
i
g
h
t
s
r
e
s
e
r
v
e
d
.
NEWS FEATURE

DEPTHS OF THE ATMOSPHERE


W ith Saturns gorgeous ring system distracting the eye, the planets
swirling cloudtop patterns are sometimes underappreciated. Cassini
changed that by observing how storms roiled Saturns atmosphere over
the course of many Earth years, providing deep insights into the currents
that shape the planets atmosphere.
In late 2010, the spacecraft had a front-row seat as a thunderstorm
developed into an enormous, swirling white cloud more than
10,000 kilometres across. The storm churned from deep inside the
atmosphere all the way to the its upper layers, and in the ensuing
months, wrapped entirely around the northern hemisphere until the
head of the storm crashed into the tail. Similar storms appear every
two to three decades, a rate that is probably controlled by the amount
of water vapour in the atmosphere. Other planets in the Solar System,
such as Jupiter, have massive storms but do not see such planet-circling LUMINOUS AURORAS
giants. Glowing bands are created at the poles where the solar wind
Cassini also probed a unique hexagon-shaped feature, some slams into Saturns magnetosphere.
30,000kilometres across, at Saturns north pole. Confined by winds
flowing at more than 300kilometres an hour, the hexagon is home to
smaller hurricane-like vortices that rotate within it. Oddly, Saturn has no
such feature at its south pole.
Even Saturns interior came into better focus thanks to the mission.
The planet has a strong and complex magnetic field, generated by liquid
churning deep within it. The bright auroras that glow around Saturns GROWING STORM
poles served as guide posts by helping to reveal the patterns and Thunderclouds
intensity of its polar magnetic fields. barrelled across
Some fundamental mysteries remain. Mission scientists are still Saturns northern
working to determine how long a Saturnian day is. Because the planet hemisphere in
has no solid surface, researchers cannot track a fixed feature to measure 201011.
its rotation rate. Instead, they have tried to measure its true spinning
speed by observing the planets powerful rotating radio emissions, which
should reflect the movement of the magnetic field stemming from deep
within. But Cassini found that these emissions were more intricate than
expected, which complicates efforts to use them to understand the
rotation rate. More-detailed information about the magnetic field may
come during this final phase of the mission, as Cassini loops between the
planet and its rings.
Although the mission will come to a close soon, it will leave behind
a wealth of information for future studies. Cassinis treasure of data is
100 times as broad and deep as Voyagers, and it will take decades to
get to the bottom of it, says Jeff Cuzzi, a planetary scientist at NASAs
Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. The end of Cassinis
active operations may be only the beginning of real advances in our
understanding of what it has discovered.

Alexandra Witze, a correspondent for Nature based in Boulder,


Colorado, has been covering Cassini since its 1997 launch.
GROWING STORM, HEMMED-IN HEXAGON: NASA/JPL-CALTECH/SSI
LUMINOUS AURORAS: NASA/JPL/UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA;

HEMMED-IN HEXAGON
A six-sided, jet-stream-like
swirl churns around the
planets north pole.

5 1 6 | NAT U R E | VO L 5 4 8 | 3 1 AUG U S T 2 0 1 7

2
0
1
7
M
a
c
m
i
l
l
a
n
P
u
b
l
i
s
h
e
r
s
L
i
m
i
t
e
d
,
p
a
r
t
o
f
S
p
r
i
n
g
e
r
N
a
t
u
r
e
.
A
l
l
r
i
g
h
t
s
r
e
s
e
r
v
e
d
.