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Spacecraft to Skim Atmosphere of Saturn's Moon Titan


NASA's Cassini spacecraft will get its best look at Saturn's biggest moon Titan this weekend, when it takes the deepest dip yet into the cloud-covered satellite's hazy atmosphere.

Cassini will fly 43 miles (70 km) lower into the atmosphere of Titan than ever before when it swoops past the Saturnian moon in the early morning of June 21 GMT (evening of June 20 Pacific Time). At its closest point, the probe will be 547 miles (880 km) above Titan's surface.

This is one of the most anticipated flybys of the Cassini mission so far, Cesar Bertucci, one of the Cassini team scientists, wrote in a blog post for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, located in Pasadena, Calif. The flyby is the 71st Titan pass of the Cassini mission since it arrived at Saturn in 2004.

It will be Cassini's first time flying below Titan's ionosphere, the layer of electrons and other charged particles that make up the upper part of the moon's atmosphere, Bertucci wrote.

By dipping this low, Cassini should be far enough away from Saturn's magnetic field to be able to potentially detect magnetic signatures that originate within Titan itself.

"We want to get as close to the surface with our magnetometer as possible for a one-of-a-kind scan of the moon," Bertucci wrote.

The goal, researchers said, is to find out if Titan has its own magnetic field, which could help scientists understand more about the moon's interior and geochemical evolution.

But first, Cassini mission scientists had to make sure it was safe for their spacecraft to fly so deep into Titan's atmosphere.

The atmosphere of Titan applies torque, or rotational force, on objects that fly through it in much the same way that the flow of air pushes on a human hand sticking outside the window of a moving car.  

Cassini's mission planners and the NASA Engineering and Safety Center in Hampton, Va., have analyzed the torque applied by Titan's atmosphere to confirm that the spacecraft can fly safely at its lowest-yet altitude above the moon's surface.

By coincidence, the engineers discovered that the most stable angle for Cassini to fly was the same as the angle required to point its high-gain antenna to Earth.

So, by cocking the spacecraft a fraction of a degree, mission managers should be able to track Cassini in real-time during its closest approach. Thrusters will fire throughout the flyby in order to maintain this angle and pointing automatically.

Cassini was slated to be decommissioned in September of this year, but has received an extended mission that now runs through 2017.

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