A successful test of the camera on NASA's Cassini spacecraft has produced images of Saturn 20 months before the spacecraft arrives at that planet.
A color composite of the Saturn test images is available online from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA02884 and from the Cassini imaging team's University of Arizona site at http://ciclops.lpl.arizona.edu. The image shows the shadow of the planet falling across its famous rings and includes Saturn's largest moon, Titan.
The planet was 285 million kilometers (177 million miles) from the spacecraft when the images were taken last week, nearly twice the distance between Earth and the Sun.
"Cassini has sighted the ringed planet looking distant, mysterious and serene," said Dr. Carolyn Porco, a planetary scentist at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., and leader of the science team using the Cassini camera. "Our anticipation has been building for years, so it's good to know our destination is in view."
Dr. Dennis Matson, Cassini project scientist at JPL in Pasadena, Calif., said, "This is an emotional event for the mission. We now have Saturn in our sights."
Cassini camera-team member Dr. Alfred McEwen at the University of Arizona, Tucson, added, "Seeing the picture makes our science-planning work suddenly seem more real. Now we can see Saturn and we'll watch it get bigger as a visual cue that we're approaching fast. It's good to see the camera is working well."
Fourteen camera-team scientists selected by NASA will use the camera to investigate many features of Saturn, its moons and its rings. Cassini will begin a four-year prime mission in orbit around Saturn when it arrives on July 1, 2004. It will release a piggybacked probe, Huygens, to descend through the thick atmosphere of Titan on Jan. 14, 2005.
Cassini-Huygens is a cooperative mission of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. Additional information about it is available online at http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C.