NASA's Cassini Saturn probe has been granted new life around the ringed planet thanks to an extension of its mission through 2017.
The spacecraft, which launched in 1997 and arrived at Saturn in 2004, was slated to be decommissioned in September of this year. But it received a reprieve in the new 2011 NASA budget proposal put forward by President Barack Obama, which allocates $60 million per year for seven years to keep the probe pumping out science from the ringed planet.
This is the second mission extension for Cassini, which was originally scheduled to end its mission in 2008, but then received a 27-month lifeline. The spacecraft has studied Saturn and its moons diligently for nearly six years, sending back more than 210,000 images so far.
The orbiter was launched along with the European Space Agency (ESA)'s Huygens probe, which flew through the atmosphere of Titan and landed on the moon in 2005. The joint mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA and the Italian Space Agency.
"This is a mission that never stops providing us surprising scientific results and showing us eye popping new vistas," said Jim Green, director of NASA's planetary science division at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. "The historic traveler's stunning discoveries and images have revolutionized our knowledge of Saturn and its moons."
During the course of more than 125 orbits around Saturn, 67 flybys of its moon Titan, and eight close encounters with the moon Enceladus, Cassini has enabled a wealth of new discoveries. The satellite has revealed surprising details of the planet's signature rings, and remarkable water vapor geysers spewing out of the icy Enceladus.
Cassini's mission extension will entail another 155 revolutions around the planet, 54 flybys of Titan and 11 flybys of Enceladus.
The next phase of its mission under the extension will be called the Cassini Solstice Mission, and will focus on seasonal and long-term weather changes on Saturn and its many moons.
Saturn takes almost 30 years to orbit around the sun. By 2017, Cassini will have witnessed most of an entire season.
"The extension presents a unique opportunity to follow seasonal changes of an outer planet system all the way from its winter to its summer," said Bob Pappalardo, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. "Some of Cassini's most exciting discoveries still lie ahead."
The extended mission will also allow more studies of Saturn's rings and an investigation of the planet's magnetic field, mission managers said.
"The spacecraft is doing remarkably well, even as we endure the expected effects of age after logging 2.6 billion miles on its odometer," said Bob Mitchell, Cassini program manager at JPL. "This extension is important because there is so much still to be learned at Saturn. The planet is full of secrets, and it doesn't give them up easily."
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- Special Report: Cassini's Mission to Saturn