NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab announced that on March 6 the Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn since July 1, 2004, made its 100th pass by Titan, the planet’s largest moon. If Cassini has been getting its card punched on each visit, that means it qualifies for one free ride on Saturn’s rings.
OK, seriously, this is another fantastic and unexpected NASA achievement. The Cassini–Huygens craft has been on the solar system equivalent of a cross-country discount Southwest flight. It was launched in 1997 and made two flybys of Venus in 1998 and 1999. That was followed by a gravitational-assist pass Earth and a flyby of the Moon. On January 23, 2000, it did a photographic flyby of the asteroid 2685 Masursky before heading to Jupiter, taking some 26,000 pictures before heading to Saturn.
The primary mission of Cassini-Huygens was the release of the Huygens lander. It separated on December 25, 2004, entered the atmosphere of Titan on January 14, 2005, and landed 150 minutes later. In a 90 minute period, Huygens took pictures, recorded sounds and made extensive measurements which were sent back to Cassini and relayed to Earth. The 100 flybys of Titan have yielded detailed information about the moon’s surface liquids, ice and atmosphere as well as its potential for harboring extraterrestrial life.
In it’s spare time Cassini has also discovered seven additional moons orbiting Saturn. Because of this outstanding performance, NASA extended Cassini’s mission by two years in 2008. The mission was later extended to 2017 with additional passes of Titan and the moon Enceladus before the craft travels inside Saturn’s rings and takes a fantastic finishing trip through the atmosphere to the surface. Giovanni Cassini and Christiaan Huygens must be so proud.