History of solar system exploration: Saturn and its Moons

A poster of Saturn’s principal moons can be found here, courtesy of Wikipedia 

Saturn is often called (rightly) the jewel of the solar system. Its majestic rings can be seen through even a small telescope (they were first observed by Galileo in 1610, but it was Huygens who first correctly asserted that the observed object was a ring in 1655, while later observations showed that there were multiple rings). Saturn is the second largest world in our system besides Jupiter, and the only one of comparable size.

Modern Exploration of Saturn:

  • Pioneer 11 (1979) – NASA flyby mission that took some low-resolution imagery of the Saturnian system to pave the way for safe passage of the Voyager 1 and 2 probes. At this time there were 11 known moons.
  • Voyager 1 (1980) – NASA flyby mission that provided the first high-resolution photography of the Saturnian system, detecting complex formations in the ring system and doing atmospheric observations of Saturn and Titan. The maneuver required to conduct a Titan flyby ended Voyager 1’s “Grand Tour”.
  • Voyager 2 (1981) – NASA flyby mission, a twin to Voyager 1. Further high-resolution imagery was performed, as the craft used a gravitational assist on its way to Uranus and Neptune. By now, Saturn had 17 known moons.
  • Cassini-Huygens (2004) – Joint NASA/ESA mission, comprised of the Cassini orbiter and the Huygens lander. When the mission made an orbital insertion, there were 31 known moons. Now, because of it, there are 62 known moons. The Huygens lander descended into the Titanian atmosphere and returned imagery from the surface. The Cassini orbiter has had an enormously successful run, and has been extended numerous times with a current plan for a Saturn impact in 2017. Huge volumes of data and imagery have been returned, such that movies can be made from compositing the pictures. Ongoing.
  • Titan Saturn System Mission (2029?) – Proposed joint NASA/ESA mission comprising an orbiter and two descent probes, to investigate mysteries from the Cassini mission and further explore Titan. The two probes are a hot air balloon to survey Titan’s atmosphere and a lander that will land in a methane sea.
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