Annual Report FY 2004 - Research at Cornell

31. Rings and Moons

Joseph A. Burns, Theoretical and Applied Mechanics/Astronomy; Joseph Veverka, Steven W. Squyres, Peter Gierasch, Philip Nicholson, and Senior Researcher Peter Thomas, Astronomy, form the Cornell team for the Cassini-Hugyens space mission to Saturn—the planet with rings and 31 known moons. When the spacecraft went into orbit as a satellite of Saturn in June 2004, the scientific instruments of the Cornell team were on board to analyze Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, for the four years of the primary mission. Hours after the Cassini-Hugyens spacecraft went into orbit around Saturn, it sent back 61 images of the planet’s rings described as astonishing, mind-boggling, and with much beauty and clarity. Researchers were looking at structures never before seen.

The Cornell instruments include two main cameras for taking wide and narrow angles of Saturn and its rings and moons and the composite infrared spectrometer (CIRS), which measures the thermal radiation of the region under study. The cameras use charge couple devices (CCDs)—silicon chips that change photons of light into electronic signals used to make images of astronomical objects or analyze how much light is being received from such objects. The cameras have many filters that operate between ultraviolet and near-infrared wavelengths, ideal for examining the atmosphere of Titan and showing close-up details of the moon’s surface.

The 700-pound Huygens probe landed on Titan in January 2005. The probe is the first spacecraft to make direct contact with the surface of a moon of another planet. The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) manages the mission for NASA.

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