The University of Southampton

Cassini’s end marks new beginnings for Saturn

Published: 
13 September 2017
Illustration
The Cassini probe's mission placed it in orbit around Saturn

Dr. Caitriona Jackman has spent virtually all of her academic career focused on Saturn and, more specifically, on the vast amount of data sent back to Earth by the Cassini-Huygens mission to the ringed planet.

Conceived in the 1980s as a successor to the Voyager and Pioneer spacecraft, Cassini was launched in 1997 and eventually as a dedicated mission to Saturn in 2004 – just after Dr. Jackman, now Associate Professor in Physics and Astronomy at the University of Southampton, began her PhD.

As the Cassini mission reaches its final stages and prepares to plunge into the gaseous cloud surrounding Saturn Dr. Jackman is excited but with a hint of melancholy as the probe ends its 20-year mission.

“I’ve had the immense privilege of working with Cassini data from the very beginning of my PhD which started back in 2003 when the probe was just on its way to Saturn,” Dr. Jackman recalls. “My supervisor was part of the magnetometer team - the instruments on the spacecraft that measure the magnetic field, - so I was analysing that data throughout my PhD.

“Saturn is a really beautiful planet; the rings are iconic and everybody can picture what it looks like in the night sky,” she continues. “And, as the seasons change and the tilt of the rings change, you get a different view of Saturn every time which is very special.

“Over the years, my research has been to study the magnetic field of Saturn, to study the aurora (the northern and southern lights), so having spent most of my waking hours for the last 13 years thinking about Saturn, it’s going to be quite strange for Cassini to no longer be actively taking data,” Dr Jackman admits.

“We went there with certain questions,” she explains. “We wanted to chart the magnetic field of the planet, we wanted to examine the moons, we wanted to land on Titan - which we did successfully - but we’ve also had many surprises.

“For example, in charting the moons of Saturn we discovered many more moons and we also discovered that one of the moons – Enceladus - is producing geysers of water vapour from cracks on the surface,” she continues. “Such unexpected discoveries can change the course of a mission.

“I think it is important to emphasise that the mission doesn’t end on the 15 September in the sense that the data will be there and will be actively analysed for many, many years to come.”

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