Review

Cassini-Huygens’ exploration of the Saturn system: 13 years of discovery

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Science  14 Jun 2019:
Vol. 364, Issue 6445, pp. 1046-1051
DOI: 10.1126/science.aat3760

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Cassini's last look at Saturn's rings

During the final stages of the Cassini mission, the spacecraft flew between the planet and its rings, providing a new view on this spectacular system (see the Perspective by Ida). Setting the scene, Spilker reviews the numerous discoveries made using Cassini during the 13 years it spent orbiting Saturn. Iess et al. measured the gravitational pull on Cassini, separating the contributions from the planet and the rings. This allowed them to determine the interior structure of Saturn and the mass of its rings. Buratti et al. present observations of five small moons located in and around the rings. The moons each have distinctive shapes and compositions, owing to accretion of ring material. Tiscareno et al. observed the rings directly at close range, finding complex features sculpted by the gravitational interactions between moons and ring particles. Together, these results show that Saturn's rings are substantially younger than the planet itself and constrain models of their origin.

Science, this issue p. 1046, p. eaat2965, p. eaat2349, p. eaau1017; see also p. 1028

Abstract

The Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn provided a close-up study of the gas giant planet, as well as its rings, moons, and magnetosphere. The Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn in 2004, dropped the Huygens probe to study the atmosphere and surface of Saturn’s planet-sized moon Titan, and orbited Saturn for the next 13 years. In 2017, when it was running low on fuel, Cassini was intentionally vaporized in Saturn’s atmosphere to protect the ocean moons, Enceladus and Titan, where it had discovered habitats potentially suitable for life. Mission findings include Enceladus’ south polar geysers, the source of Saturn’s E ring; Titan’s methane cycle, including rain that creates hydrocarbon lakes; dynamic rings containing ice, silicates, and organics; and Saturn’s differential rotation. This Review discusses highlights of Cassini’s investigations, including the mission’s final year.

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