Cassini Huygens is a joint NASA/ESA/ASI robotic spacecraft mission currently studying the planet Saturn and its moons. The spacecraft consists of two main elements: the NASA Cassini orbiter, named after the Italian-French astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini, and the ESA Huygens probe, named after the Dutch astronomer, mathematician and physicist Christiaan Huygens. It was launched on October 15, 1997 and entered into orbit around Saturn on July 1, 2004. On December 25, 2004 the Huygens probe separated from the orbiter at approximately 02:00 UTC; it reached Saturn's moon Titan on January 14, 2005 where it made an atmospheric descent to the surface and relayed scientific information. On April 18, 2008, NASA announced a two year extension of the mission. Cassini is the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn and the fourth to visit it.
Hundreds of scientists and engineers from 16 European countries and 33 of the United States make up the team responsible for designing, building, flying and collecting data from the Cassini orbiter and Huygens probe. The mission is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where the orbiter was designed and assembled. Development of the Huygens Titan probe was managed by the European Space Research and Technology Centre, whose prime contractor for the probe is Alcatel in France. Equipment and instruments for the probe were supplied from many countries. The Italian Space Agency (ASI) provided Cassini's high-gain communication antenna, and a revolutionary compact and light-weight multimode radar (synthetic aperture radar, radar altimeter, radiometer).
On Sept. 15, 2017, operators deliberately plunged the spacecraft into Saturn, as Cassini gathered science until the end. The “plunge” ensures Saturn’s moons will remain pristine for future exploration. During Cassini’s final days, mission team members from all around the world gathered at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, to celebrate the achievements of this historic mission.
- Launch vehicle: Titan IVB/ Centaur
- Weight: 2.2 million pounds (1 million kg)
- Launch: Oct. 15, 1997, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.
- Earth-Saturn distance at arrival: 934 million miles (1.5 billion km) (10 times Earth to Sun distance)
- Distance traveled to reach Saturn: 2.2 billion miles (3.5 billion km)
- Saturn's average distance from Earth: 890 million miles (1.43 billion km)
- One-way Speed-of-Light Time from Saturn to Earth at Cassini Arrival: 84 minutes
- One-way Speed-of-Light Time from Saturn to Earth During Orbital Tour: 67 to 85 minutes
- Venus Fybys: April 26, 1998 at 176 miles (234 km); June 24, 1999 at 370 miles (600 km)
- Earth Flyby: Aug. 18, 1999 at 727 miles (1,171 km)
- Jupiter flyby: Dec. 30, 2000 at 6 million miles (10 million km) (closest approach 5:12 a.m. EST)
- Saturn Arrival Date: July 1, 2004, UTC (June 30, 2004 PDT)
- Primary Mission: 4 years
- Two Extended Missions: Equinox (2008-2010) and Solstice (2010-2017)
- Partners: NASA, European Space Agency (ESA), Italian space agency Agenzia Spaziale Italiana (ASI); total of 17 countries involved
- U.S. states in which Cassini work was carried out: 33
- Number of people who worked on some portion of Cassini-Huygens: More than 5,000
- Cost of mission: $1.422 billion pre-launch development; $710 million mission operations; $54 million tracking; $422 million launch vehicle; $500 million ESA; $160 million ASI; total about $3.27 billion, of which U.S. contribution is $2.6 billion and European partners contribution $660 million