Students to Take Command of Saturn Probe
False color Cassini image illustrating the jets of fine icy particles erupting from the south polar region of Enceladus. Please
Credit: Cassini Imaging Team and NASA/JPL/SSI

NASA will turn control of the Cassini spacecraft at Saturn over to students for a day in a contest aimed at boosting interest in science among today?s youth.

An essay contest for students in grades 5 through 12 will determine which of three science targets Cassini will photograph on June 10, the space agency announced late Thursday. Cassini scientists regularly debate exactly which images of Saturn?s many moons and rings will produce the most science results, a task they are turning over to elementary and high school students for the ?Cassini Scientist-for-a-Day? competition, NASA officials said.

"It's a really fun way for kids to learn about Saturn and what the mission is doing," said Rachel Zimmerman-Brachman, an education and public outreach specialist with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., in a statement. "Students have to do their own research to write their essay. That way, they learn how to ask questions about the solar system and what we still need to understand.

On June 10, Cassini will be about 493,000 miles (793,000 km) away from Saturn and zooming toward the planet at about 13,400 mph (22,565 kph).

That gives the spacecraft about 55 minutes to turn its camera eyes toward any target, though the Cassini science team narrowed the list of candidates to the Saturnian moons of Rhea, Enceladus and a section of the planet?s rings that contains the planet?s tiny satellite Pan.

In order to select a target, students must write a 500-word essay on exactly what image they want Cassini to take and discuss its scientific importance.

Cassini recently flew past the moon Enceladus, an icy satellite that spews plumes of water ice from fissures at its south pole. Rhea is Saturn?s second largest moon and may sport its own rings just like its planetary parent, Cassini researchers have said.

Pan is a tiny moon, about 12 miles (20 km) from pole to pole, and orbits Saturn inside a gap in the planet?s trademark rings. Past Cassini studies have shown large bulges along the small satellite?s equator.

A panel of Cassini mission scientists, planners and JPL education officials will judge the entries and select three winners; one each from elementary, middle and high school age groups.

For more information and a list of NASA contest rules, click here.