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  • Cassini Visits Titan and Dione During a Special Double Fly-By
    Posted by Heather Goss 3:21 PM on Apr 19, 2010

    This April marks the high-point of the two-year extended mission for Cassini, when the spacecraft completed a visit to moon Dione, the primary goal for Equinox. 

    We've posted about NASA's mission to Saturn, launched in 1997 and now nearly finished with its first extended mission, a few times just recently.  Last September we saw the first images of the ringed planet's lightning storms via the strong radio waves they emit and heard more about a temporary radiation belt scientists detected around the moon Dione.  Then in November Cassini sent back images of "tiger stripes" and close-ups of water plumes from its fly-by of Enceladus.  The spacecraft revisited Titan for a double fly-by in December and January and conducted its closest visit to moon Rhea in March. 

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    Image of Dione taken by Cassini on April 7, 2010. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

    Now in April, Cassini hasn't slowed its busy schedule down a bit.  The spacecraft prepared for the fortuitous alignment that would allow a special double fly-by of Saturn's moons Titan and Dione on April 5 and 7 -- indeed, it was the prior fly-by of Dione in 2005 and the subsequent discovery of the radiation belt that played a big part in the design of the Equinox mission, so this was a particularly important day for Cassini. 

    Unfortunately, an unexpected autonomous reset occurred during its visit to Titan, with fewer images produced as a result, but the cameras were thankfully ready to go before reaching Dione.  Scientists were able to capture a great amount of data from Dione and hope to discover more about the charged particles and whether they're a source for Saturn itself and its rings, as well as an explanation for the dark material found on the moon. 

    Even more exciting images were released last Wednesday, Cassini's capture of visual images of the lightning storms on Saturn.  Before now, the planet was too bright, so the lightning could only be detected through radio waves.  NASA released a movie of the lightning taken in August 2009, during Saturn's Equinox, in a storm that raged on the planet from January to October 2009.

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    NASA's Cassini spacecraft captured the first lightning flashes on Saturn when it captured these images on August 17, 2009.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

    Meanwhile, Space.com ponders what life on Titan might be like.

    Cassini's two-year extended Equinox mission will end in July.  Its second extension, dubbed Solstice, begins in October 2010 and will run through 2017.

    Tags: os99, cassini, titan, dione, nasa, saturn

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