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Tax dollars hard at work around Saturn
July 1, 2014 6:58 AM   Subscribe

Ten years ago, the Cassini–Huygens spacecraft became the first to orbit the planet Saturn. After dropping off Huygens on the moon Titan, Cassini proceeded to spend its time exploring the Saturn system, watching the birth of a new moon, photographing water vents on Enceladus, discovering methane lakes on Titan, spotting hurricanes on Saturn, confirming aspects of general relativity and all sorts of other stuff. Enjoy these stunning photographs, explore the timeline of its exploration and marvel at the complex orbital mechanics that keep Cassini flying in Saturn's system with a tiny fuel supply.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (32 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite

 
Fuck yes. This.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:11 AM on July 1 [3 favorites]


For the casual space fan like myself, this was a great mission (especially the Huygens landing), but the coup de grâce on my bucket list is New Horizons arrival at Pluto/Charon in just over a year now (July 14th 2015)!
posted by fairmettle at 7:12 AM on July 1 [4 favorites]


Thanks for another great space-related post, Mr. Blatcher.

I don't know that we'll ever have another probe return so much sheer beauty as Cassini. I suppose Galileo and the Mars rovers have all shown us some beautiful things, but there's nothing quite like Saturn, is there?

Even a dime store telescope can show you the rings of Saturn. I encourage anyone who hasn't seen it with their own eyes to seek out a scope out and take a look. Saturn is up in the early evening right now, though not very high in the sky, and it's worth looking at.

I love those grainy shots from the surface of Titan. They remind me very much of the photos from the old Soviet Venus lander. Just a couple blurry shots, nothing detailed. No rovers, no high res, just a very quick glimpse of what we'll hopefully see more of one day.
posted by bondcliff at 7:12 AM on July 1 [2 favorites]


It's super-tantalizing and kind of frustrating -- but still awesome! -- that we landed a probe on m-f-ing Titan and the only image we got was apparently this single photograph. The fact that that it exists is pretty incredible, but I want more, dammit. Apparently Huygens was only able to spend 90 minutes transmitting from the surface.

Reasonably confident New Horizons will beam back images of Lovecraftian horrors on Pluto.
posted by eugenen at 7:31 AM on July 1 [4 favorites]


It's amazing to me how much many of the images resemble microscopic photography (for example). I don't mean that as a conspiracy theory; just, they have a beauty and an aesthetic that feels very similar, and I think are only possible due to the sheer magnitude of the objects and distances involved. Very neat!
posted by tocts at 7:31 AM on July 1


And don't forget, Cassini's Grand Finale is coming up in the next couple of years!
posted by hippybear at 7:34 AM on July 1


I don't know that we'll ever have another probe return so much sheer beauty as Cassini.

As mentioned above, The New Horizons spacecraft will arrive around Pluto next year, while the Juno mission will start exploring Jupiter in 2016.

With the discoveries of water plumes on Enceldaus and liquid hydrocarbons on Titan, there's been a lot more interest in these moons and I'll wager another probe will sent some time in the 2030s. We came fairly close to building a nautical explorer of one of Titan's lakes, but evidently 5 spacecraft around or on Mars isn't enough, we need other one. Yes, I'm still bitter about this. A a similar concept, the Titan Saturn System Mission, is still being studied.

The Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer seems like it's going be reality, launching in 2022 for exploration of Jupiter and several of its moons in the early 2030s; Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:50 AM on July 1 [3 favorites]


Wikipedia says that there were 350 photos taken by Hugyens of Titan. Or rather, it took 700, but due to a fuckup with one of the two radio channels where only one of them was turned on, we only recovered half of them. But that's still a lot more than just one photo.

I'm not sure where you can find any others beyond the famous surface one though.

That fuckup is small compared to the potentially fatal flaw that was discovered mid-flight (and, thankfully, mitigated). I'm not sure what the root explanation is, but it seems like the ESA dropped the ball in terms of communications testing.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:51 AM on July 1


Here's a gallery containing some more Hugyens photos. Also a lot of unrelated "space" photos and some artists renderings of the landing, but there's a 360-deg panorama taken by the lander in there.

Quite a few of them were taken on the way down; fewer on the surface. Maybe this is just due to the relative amount of time spent on the way down vs actually on the surface.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:53 AM on July 1


There's also a movie made by stitching together photos taken during Huygens's descent.
posted by mubba at 7:56 AM on July 1 [2 favorites]


As mentioned above, The New Horizons spacecraft will arrive around Pluto next year

I've been looking forward to New Horizons for, what, 13 years now? I'm excited for it but since Pluto is most likely just a big rock I'm not expecting too much more than a few photos of some big rocks. Hopefully there will be a few surprises waiting for us like there was on Mimas and Iapetus.
posted by bondcliff at 8:00 AM on July 1


Also next year, Dawn orbits Ceres! I'm hoping for an abandoned alien base but I'll settle for the usual craters.
posted by gubo at 8:05 AM on July 1 [1 favorite]


Yeah, Huygens had a very short life space:
The main mission phase was a parachute descent through Titan's atmosphere. The batteries and all other resources were sized for a Huygens mission duration of 153 minutes, corresponding to a maximum descent time of 2.5 hours plus at least 3 additional minutes (and possibly a half hour or more) on Titan's surface. The probe's radio link was activated early in the descent phase, and the orbiter "listened" to the probe for the next 3 hours, including the descent phase, and the first thirty minutes after touchdown. Not long after the end of this three-hour communication window, Cassini's high-gain antenna (HGA) was turned away from Titan and towards Earth.
Most of the photos it took were during its descent. Various enthusiasts worked with the photos to highlight stuff. Keep in mind that Cassini was launched in 1997 and it's technology was probably frozen years earlier, so the photos are nothing like what could be gotten if the mission was launched today.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:05 AM on July 1


A Cassini image has been my desktop for years...
posted by Windopaene at 8:21 AM on July 1


The orbital maneuver part of this is just amazing to me. I've played enough Kerbal Space Program to have some tiny understanding the complexity of what's going on, and KSP cheats in having much simplified gravitational mechanics. Neat stuff.

A related bit of cleverness is happening now with ISEE-3 (previously). They're doing OK, having a hard time establishing reliable communication via the Deep Space Network. And their fuel requirements are increasing every day.
posted by Nelson at 8:23 AM on July 1


Cassini makes me wish I was as interested in space in 2004 as I am now. That would have been an exciting time to be paying attention. I only vaguely remember seeing occasional Saturn pics and hearing about the Huygens landing. I suppose now I have New Horizons to look forward to, but Pluto isn't nearly as exciting. Oh and Juno, that'll be cool.

Also, that orbital mechanics image is amazing. I thought my kerbal space program orbital maps were complicated, but that hairball or an orbit puts it to shame. It's amazing what they've gotten done with only 742 delta-V.
posted by cirrostratus at 8:28 AM on July 1 [2 favorites]


Not enough. I want that undersea rover to light up the ocean and sent back some pictures. More.
More.

I want to go there. And come back.

Meanwhile, send robots with cameras.
posted by mule98J at 8:31 AM on July 1


Yay Cassini! Keep sendin' me that sweet, sweet data.
posted by BrashTech at 8:34 AM on July 1 [1 favorite]


So how much has this cost me as a US taxpayer? Like $5-$10 over the course of the mission, if that? I would gladly triple that if it meant more Galileo/Curiosity/Cassini-type missions. Money well-spent.
posted by CosmicRayCharles at 9:20 AM on July 1


Apparently there was a certain amount of concern from various groups about Cassini's earth flyby on it's way out to Saturn. I assume the actual risk from the RTG, even in a castastrophic failure, is essentially zero, but it's interesting that while I remember reading about this stuff around Cassini, I didn't really see anything similar about New Horizons.

the big composites of Saturn taken by Cassini and the photos taken by the mars rovers are basically my favorite images of space. I can't wait to see what sort of pictures even more advanced cameras can produce. Seeing Pluto as something more than a cluster of blown up pixels is especially exciting.

(as an aside, I love that CNN published all of their old timey articles as static html, meaning their older articles maintain their Web 1.0 stylings)
posted by grandsham at 9:46 AM on July 1


I worked on Cassini for 11 years, and it was definitely my favorite job of all I've had so far. I really wish I was still working on it, but the budget shrinks every year the mission continues and they eventually cut me.

I was definitely way down in the trenches, preparing commands for turning the spacecraft and operating the visible light cameras when it was near Titan, and I admit sometimes I lost track of the wonder of it all. I wish I had taken on some of the data processing work.
posted by Four Ds at 9:53 AM on July 1 [11 favorites]


So how much has this cost me as a US taxpayer?

Here's initial costs for the original four year mission (2004-2008):
The total cost of the Cassini-Huygens mission is about $3.26 billion, including $1.4 billion for pre-launch development, $704 million for mission operations, $54 million for tracking and $422 million for the launch vehicle. The U.S. contributed $ 2.6 billion, the European Space Agency $500 million and the Italian Space Agency $160 million.
The Equinox Mission was a two year funding extension, which ran from 2008-2010. The Solstice Mission runs from 2010-2017. According to this link, NASA's operating cost for all planetary missions in 2014 is $215 million, but that figure doesn't break out Cassini seperately. So I personally don't know how much Cassini has cost the USA and keep in mind it's a joint mission between NASA and the ESA, so who knows? Either way, it's pretty cheap on a per citizen basis.

For no particular reason, here's a gif of Titan rotating.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:56 AM on July 1 [1 favorite]


...since Pluto is most likely just a big rock...

No, it's not! Pluto is a big icy-rock, with the ice making up a large fraction by mass. I am on my phone right now or I would provide links, but even from this far distance we can see huge surface variations. (Search for HST albedo maps.) If a twenty pixel map of the entire globe has big light and dark patches, just imagine what it will look like up close.

my fear is that the spacecraft will be damaged flying through the debris orbiting Pluto, since they keep finding new bitty little moons, but nothing we can do about that now...
posted by puffyn at 9:58 AM on July 1 [5 favorites]


ESA's Rosetta craft will enter orbit around comet "67P" (67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko) in August (next month!) and will detach and land a small probe on it later in the autumn.
posted by neuron at 10:01 AM on July 1


Also, the Dawn spacecraft will start exploring the dwarf planet Ceres in late March or early April of 2015.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:07 AM on July 1 [1 favorite]


BTW, for those who love this stuff, may I recommend Europa Report, which is one of the best science-fiction films in recent years and the most whole-hearted and artful paean to the spirit of scientific explorations since Carl Sagan.
posted by eugenen at 10:25 AM on July 1 [1 favorite]


Cassini served a dual purpose for me—(A) I got to enjoy all the amazing science that's come out of the mission, and (B) the anti-science panicky ninny brigade in the early part of the mission cured me of my naïveté about "my" side in the old us-vs-them political game, because "my" side was as wrong, wrongheaded, and histrionic as the "them" side at their worst.
posted by sonascope at 11:05 AM on July 1


Let's round the total mission cost up to $4 billion and ignore the prelaunch development and just use the 20 years from launch in 1997 to termination in 2017. That's $200 million year. Estimate 125 million tax payers to make the math math easy and you come out at $1.60/year. That number will go down if you don't use back of the napkin math and amortize the cost of the program over its full development and mission timeline.

So yes you too, for the less than cost of one shitty cup of coffee per year, can help fund a space probe.
posted by nathan_teske at 4:11 PM on July 1 [2 favorites]


Hey, can I super-size the mission and get a rover also, for .50 cent extra?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:15 PM on July 1 [1 favorite]


Sure and make sure to take a punch card for our Super Space Deal club: buy 9 regular priced unmanned missions and the next one is free!!
posted by nathan_teske at 4:22 PM on July 1


Plan to send a submarine to explore one of the largest lakes of Titan.
posted by newdaddy at 8:39 PM on July 1


Don't toy with my emotions.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:54 PM on July 3 [1 favorite]


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