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Last Updated: Saturday, 6 December, 2003, 22:45 GMT
Scientists admire Saturn image
By Dr David Whitehouse
BBC News Online science editor

En route to Saturn, the Cassini spacecraft has caught another glimpse of the ringed planet that is growing more detailed with time.

Lord of the Rings - Cassini approaches Saturn

The spectacular image was taken on 9 November when the spacecraft was 111 million kilometres (69 million miles) from the planet.

It shows features in the rings and atmosphere not seen in its last image taken a year ago, as well as five of Saturn's icy moons.

"After more than a decade of preparation and waiting for arrival, it is satisfying to see the Saturnian moons in this approach picture," says Dr Gerhard Neukum, of the Free University in Berlin, Germany.

"Soon we will be in orbit around Saturn to investigate these worlds in detail and to decipher their geologic history from close-up images - an exciting prospect."

'The feelings children have'

Dr Anthony DelGenio, of the US space agency (Nasa), says: "We can only see the general banded structure of Saturn from this distance, but we know that as we get closer those bands will break up before our eyes into smaller features - spots, storms, wave patterns that we'll be able to see in 10 times more detail than any previous observation of Saturn.

"I can't wait to dive in as we see it all unfold over the next few months.

"For all of us who have worked for more than a decade preparing for this mission, seeing Saturn grow larger and larger in the eyes of the Cassini cameras is a bit like the feelings children have as they come downstairs on Christmas morning to see what gifts are waiting for them under the tree."

Dr Carolyn Porco, leader of Cassini's Imaging Science team, says: "For someone who was involved in the Voyager exploration of Saturn 23 years ago, this is turning out to be a very sentimental journey.

"I'm reminded of what it felt like to see Saturn's rings for the first time with Voyager, and how rich and surprising they were.

"The spokes in the B ring, the twisted F ring and its shepherding moons, the sheer number and diversity of ring features... we'll be on the lookout for all these things and more over the next few months".

So far away, so long to travel

Wesley Huntress, who was director of Nasa's Solar System Exploration Division in 1990 at the inception of the Cassini mission, remarks: "Wow! So far away, so long to travel, so much effort to make it happen, and so worth it."

Fourteen camera-team scientists from the United States and Europe will use the two cameras on Cassini to investigate many features of the planet, its moons and its rings.

Cassini will begin a four-year mission in orbit around Saturn when it arrives on 1 July 2004.

It will release its piggybacked Huygens probe about six months later for descent through the thick atmosphere of the moon Titan. The probe could impact in what may be a liquid methane ocean.

Titan may have oily oceans
03 Oct 03  |  Science/Nature
Colourful Saturn in close-up
10 Sep 03  |  Science/Nature
Mission zooms in on Saturn
04 Nov 02  |  Science/Nature

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