Beyoncé may have gotten the world singing along to her hit “Put A Ring On It,” but hers wasn’t the first ring to capture the imagination of so many around the globe. That distinction belongs to the planet Saturn, whose dazzling rings have fascinated — and puzzled — humans since being discovered in 1610. On October 15, 1997, NASA embarked on one of the most ambitious space exploration projects in history to learn more about those rings and the planet they encircle.
The Cassini space probe was the first — and remains the only — mission to orbit Saturn. Planned since the early 1980s, the unmanned spacecraft was developed by NASA as part of a joint project with its European counterparts.
Cassini took seven years to complete the 1.3-billion-kilometer journey to Saturn. Since entering Saturn’s orbit in 2004, it has transmitted a continuous stream of images and data about the ringed planet. It has, for example, discovered two new rings and several new moons and revealed Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, to be one of the most Earth-like worlds in the solar system.
While Cassini was supposed to last only four years, it is still going strong 10 years later. In that time, it has changed the way scientists view the universe. “By having a decade there with Cassini, we have been privileged to witness never-before-seen events that are changing our understanding of how planetary systems form and what conditions might lead to habitats for life,” said Linda Spilker, the project’s top scientist.
Carolyn Porco, head of the mission’s imaging team, thinks Cassini also says a lot about life on our own planet. To her, it represents the spirit of discovery underlying mankind’s refusal to accept the limitations of living on Earth. For more than 50 years, humans have been rocketing into the cosmos. “The exploration of our solar system is to me the grandest of human endeavors,” she said. Cassini and missions like it add up to “a story about us and our epic journeys through the solar system.”