NASA to extend Cassini’s mission by two years

By Xinhua,

Los Angeles : NASA will extend by two years the Cassini spacecraft’s mission, which was set to end in July, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) announced on Tuesday.

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NASA will spend 160 million dollars to extend the mission, which the Los Angeles-based JPL is managing for NASA and the European and Italian space agencies, said JPL’s Carolina Martinez.

Cassini has completed four years of revealing some of the secrets of Saturn and its many moons. At the time Cassini was launched, JPL reported that the Cassini mission cost 3.3 billion dollars, with NASA footing 2.6 billion of the bill.

“This extension is not only exciting for the science community, but for the world to continue to share in unlocking Saturn’s secrets,” said Jim Green, director of the planetary science division at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“New discoveries are the hallmarks of (Cassini’s) success, along with the breathtaking images beamed back to Earth that are simply mesmerizing,” he said.

Among the discoveries is evidence that liquid water may lie just beneath the surface of Saturn’s tiny, shiny moon Enceladus. Water is considered a necessary ingredient for the formation of life in this solar system.

Enceladus is a snow-white moon only 310 miles in diameter — about one-seventh the size of Earth’s moon. It’s considered the brightest object in the solar system.

In 2005, Cassini’s instruments detected that water vapor geysers were shooting hundreds of miles into space from the moon’s south pole. The icy water particles — about as large as the width of a human hair — spewed from the moon at about 800 miles per hour, according to JPL.

Based on the findings of Cassini, the tiny satellite “is one of the highest-priority targets for the extended mission,” according to a NASA statement. There are plans to send the spacecraft as close as 15 miles to the surface of Enceladus.

Launched Oct. 15, 1997, the plutonium-powered Cassini is the most highly instrumented and scientifically capable interplanetary spacecraft ever deployed, according to JPL. The craft first went into orbit around Saturn in June 2004.