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Space NASA Science

Cassini's Primary Mission Ends, Two-Year Extension Begins 46

wooferhound points out recent news that the Cassini probe has completed its original four-year mission and is beginning a two-year extended mission, which was authorized earlier this year. Cassini's first mission brought us a treasure trove of information about Saturn and its various moons. The new mission will target two of those moons in particular for further study: Titan and Enceladus. Quoting: "The spacecraft is extremely healthy and carries 12 instruments powered by three radioisotope thermoelectric generators. Data from Cassini's nominal and extended missions could lay the groundwork for possible future missions to Saturn, Titan or Enceladus. [The two moons] are primary targets in the two-year extended mission, dubbed the Cassini Equinox Mission. This time period also will allow for monitoring seasonal effects on Titan and Saturn, exploring new places within Saturn's magnetosphere, and observing the unique ring geometry of the Saturn equinox in August of 2009 when sunlight will pass directly through the plane of the rings."
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Cassini's Primary Mission Ends, Two-Year Extension Begins

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  • Re:incredible (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 05, 2008 @12:57AM (#24064151)

    They learned it from Scotty.

    The classic case was on the Voyager Grand Tour. Voyager 2 was only 'designed' to go to Jupiter and Saturn. But the scientists and engineers doing the designing wanted it to also go to Uranus and Neptune. Once Voyager 1 successfully completed its flyby of Titan, the operations managers of Voyager 2 requested permission to skip that encounter with Voyager 2 so that they could do a gravity assist maneuver to go to Uranus.

  • Re:what the hell? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by MichaelSmith ( 789609 ) on Saturday July 05, 2008 @01:16AM (#24064217) Homepage Journal
    Personally I find it strange that a member of the Mars Phoenix team left the project while the vehicle was still operating on Mars [arizona.edu], and that the most of the team are taking the July 4 holiday off [arizona.edu] as if Phoenix will still be there in a years time.
  • by wisebabo ( 638845 ) on Saturday July 05, 2008 @05:36AM (#24064839) Journal

    I've looked all over the Cassini web site and I can't seem to find out anything that says how much fuel is left. Not the plutonium in the RTGs (that should last another decade or so) but rather the (bi-propellant?) in the main fuel tanks or the (mono-propellant? hydrazine?) used in the thrusters.

    Not only is the lack of thruster propellant typically what ends the life of otherwise useful satellites (Cassini is not spin stabilized so attitude correction is ultimately performed by the thrusters) but in addition to keeping Cassini pointed in the right direction, it REQUIRES a significant (compared to most space probes), delta-v capability. This is because it must be able to change its trajectory to take advantage of gravity assist from Titan, if it cannot precisely hit the "window" it is aiming for, it will be sent into a totally different (and unrecoverable) orbit. (Of course if it were not for the "space billiards" gravity assist maneuvers there is no way Cassini would have been able to achieve more than a tiny fraction of its current mission. This, to me is the most impressive and gratifying part of the entire mission).

    These relatively large changes in delta-v are what Cassini needs its two main engines for (one's a backup). Unfortunately due to a mistake in design, Cassini had to unexpectedly use up about a third(?) of its propellant because it had to carry the Huygens probe into Saturn orbit with it (rather than releasing it on its inbound trajectory). This was because the engineers neglected to design the radio to handle the large doppler shift that would have occurred had Cassini whizzed by on its hyperbolic trajectory before the orbital insertion burn while Huygens slowly parachuted to Titan's surface. By decelerating Cassini into Saturn orbit, THEN releasing the probe they were able to receive MOST of the data transmitted (another goof lost one channel) so it saved that part of the mission but at the expense of fuel.

    Now if the orbital planners have been very careful (are you reading this Sherman? ;) they may have been able to use less fuel than planned by being very accurate with their burns. So the question is: What will run out first? The main propellant used for orbital changes or the hydrazine used for attitude adjustments? (Also remember that Cassini doesn't have a separate instrument platform so every instrument pointing activity requires turning the entire spacecraft, most of this is done with reaction wheels but there is friction and sometimes the wheels must be desaturated).

    Or is something else going to run out first? (Kodak film, videotape, mailing envelopes, postage stamps ;) Or am I completely wrong about this? (Perhaps they've figured out how to use Saturn's magnetic field to help stabilize the spacecraft).

    I hope that after this mission extension (and the next) they'll do something really crazy like use up a ton of fuel for a really really risky low slow flyby THROUGH the rings. Imagine seeing thousands and thousands of boulder-to-mountain sized rocks in a vast plain far as the eye can see with Saturn looming in the background! Just like the paintings by Chesley Bonestell (and lots of science fiction shows like Voyager). Good science too.

  • by whitroth ( 9367 ) <whitroth@NOSpAM.5-cent.us> on Saturday July 05, 2008 @02:39PM (#24068093) Homepage

    My wife dian, who was in charge of the propellants on Cassini-Huygens (and won one of NASA's highest achievement awards for that work), tells me that yes, it's hydrazine, and though she has no access to those records these days (a *very* unamicable parting of the ways), estimates that there might be a year's left, if they don't need to do too much maneuvering.

    She notes that there was a *fuck* of a lot of propellant, which is why it needed a Titan IV-b, a *big* rocket.


  • Re:what the hell? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by whitroth ( 9367 ) <whitroth@NOSpAM.5-cent.us> on Saturday July 05, 2008 @02:43PM (#24068145) Homepage

    My wife, dian, who led the propellants team, got her team together, and told them they *would* think Pioneer and Voyager in all their work.


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