In the blackness of space, a “jewel” shines in the distant Sun, encircling it once every 29 ½ years. The planet Saturn’s brilliant rings dazzle casual observers and serious scientists alike, reflecting the Sun’s light as though it was a gem.
But now, Saturn has a gift from Earth. After 13 years and 293 orbits around Saturn, on September 15, 2017, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft dove into the planet’s atmosphere, losing all contact.
The robotic spacecraft left Earth in 1997, bound for the ringed “Jewel of the Solar System”. A team of scientists and engineers from the United States and countries in Europe worked together on this project, curious to explore in depth the planet, its rings, and 60+ moons. In a real display of project-based learning, the more scientists discovered, the more there were new questions to explore. Cassini revealed geometric shapes in the clouds over the north pole of Saturn. Scientists learned that rivers, lakes, and rain of coldly exotic material carve the surface of the moon Titan. They discovered jets of water ice and organic material shooting from an ocean beneath the icy surface of the moon Enceladus.
But why bring the mission to an end?
Cassini ran low on the rocket fuel used to keep it on course. If the mission went on too long, the team of engineers would no longer be able to control where the spacecraft went. It’s important to avoid having Cassini crash into any moons, especially Titan and Enceladus, so as not to contaminate any future studies of potential life there. So while they still had fuel, engineers set a course for Saturn’s atmosphere.
Youth in afterschool programs can dive deep into the discoveries of the Cassini mission, marvel in the beautiful images of Saturn and its moon, and learn the habits of mind of scientists and engineers with NASA’s “Jewel of the Solar System” afterschool program unit.
Designed for leaders with no science background, these complementary learning activities explore how far Saturn is from the Sun and from Earth, and Saturn’s size and location in the solar system. It allows the students to understand the unique structure of the magnificent rings, and it teaches about Titan and Enceladus. The unit also exposes the students to engineering challenges much like those NASA engineers face in designing a robotic spacecraft and mission, and provides a culminating activity. Because it is literacy-rich, this program unit can serve as a first bridge to upper elementary-aged science activities for leaders and youth who are more familiar and comfortable with literacy and creative arts.
Cassini was discovering and learning, right up until the end. It made the first explorations of the space between Saturn and its rings. For its final act, it returned up close and personal images of the planet, and sampled the atmosphere as it dove through it.
Scientists conducted their own “culminating activity” as Cassini made its “Grand Finale” – with an audience of friends and family, they witnessed the final data come in, reflected on what they learned, and celebrated their accomplishments. Click here to see the Grand Finale video.
This fall, Saturn shines in the evening sky after dark, low in the southwest, visible even among city lights. If you spot this “Jewel of the Solar System”, remember that the light coming into your eye travelled from the Sun, reflected off Saturn, and came to you as you stand on the surface of Earth. Before it became part of Saturn, Cassini captured that light up close, returning images and other data in such detail that now we are left to wonder, what discoveries await future missions?
Visit the Cassini mission website at https://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov
For breakfast this morning, I enjoyed Earth’s bountiful jewels of summer cantaloupe, sweet watermelon, and fresh strawberries.