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1980: Saturn's rings caught on film
The Voyager 1 space probe has reached the ringed planet, Saturn and sent back the first vivid photographs of the planet.

Scientists have been delighted and overwhelmed by the stream of data that has flooded back from the planet 950 million miles (1530 million km) away from Earth.

Voyager 1, launched in 1977, passed within 77,000 miles (124,000 km) of the clouds which surround Saturn. It was just 12 miles (19 km) off course after its epic journey.

The photographs show bands of yellow and orange clouds circling the planet at several hundred miles an hour.

Spectacular

The probe took a close look at the spectacular rings which surround Saturn, and discovered them to be more complex than Earth-based telescopes had suggested.

Scientists have counted more than 100 separate rings, instead of the six broad bands visible from Earth.

Dr Bradford Smith, leader of the Voyager photo-interpretation team, said: "The mystery of the rings, the structure and the mechanism that governs the structure, keeps getting deeper and deeper."

Voyager has already sent back data leading to some ground-breaking discoveries, including a 15th moon and a scan of Titan, the largest of Saturn's moons.

It is the only moon in the Solar System big enough to hold on to an atmosphere, mainly because of its size - it is bigger than the planet Mercury.

Scientists say Titan bears a close chemical resemblance to the Earth when life began on our planet about 4,000 million years ago.

Revolutionary

Tomorrow Voyager will continue past Saturn, visiting several of the smaller moons on the way.

Voyager 1, along with its sister craft, Voyager 2, have already sent back revolutionary new images of Saturn's sister planet, Jupiter.

The missions were only possible because of an event which occurs about every 175 years - when the outer planets of the Solar System came into an alignment which allowed a spacecraft to travel to each in turn.

The two probes are each carrying a time capsule containing images, natural sounds and music from Earth in case they should encounter extra-terrestrials during their journey into outer space.

Voyager 2, is due to reach Saturn in August next year.

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Saturn and moons
Voyager 1 took stunning pictures of Saturn and its moons (picture: Nasa)



In Context
Voyager 2 flew by Saturn in August 1981.

Nasa scientists extended the Voyager missions, sending Voyager 2 to the next planets in the Solar System - Uranus and Neptune.

The probe passed Uranus in January 1986, and Neptune in August 1989.

Voyager 1 continued towards deep space. In 1998 it became the most distant man-made object in the universe, and in 2003 reached the edge of the Solar System.

It is expected to reach the heliopause - where the sun's influence ends - in 2013.

The probes' power sources will run out in 2020, but they will carry on travelling into interstellar space. Voyager 2 is expected to pass four light years from Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, about 290,000 years from now.

It is expected that both probes will outlive the Earth itself.

The Cassini-Huygens spacecraft, a joint project between Nasa, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency, arrived at Saturn in July 2004.

It will spend four years in orbit around the planet. In January 2005, the Huygens probe landed on Titan. It sent back scientific data and extraordinary pictures of the surface.

The moon was revealed to be locked in a deep freeze, with temperatures as low as -179 degrees C, and criss-crossed by rivers of liquid methane.

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