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The mission of a lifetime: Professor Carl Murray and Cassini, 27 years later

The last images from the Cassini probe have been sent back to Earth, as its mission came to a fiery end in the skies of Saturn. Cassini’s images have provided fundamental insight into the enigmatic planet’s secrets for astronomers from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL). Professor Carl Murray, from the School of Physics and Astronomy and the only UK member of Cassini Imaging Team, reflects on his time as a scientist on the mission.

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Credit: NASA
Credit: NASA

The Cassini-Huygens spacecraft entered into orbit around Saturn in 2004 and has sent over 450,000 images back to Earth for scientists to analyse. Its 20 year mission to and around the planet has finally come to an end this year.

Extraordinary Images

Professor Carl Murray, from the School of Physics and Astronomy, has been a member of the Imaging Science Subsystem Team since 1990. He worked alongside other scientists, planning and then analyzing the images taken by the digital cameras attached to the spacecraft and relayed back to Earth.

“I loved the fact that every morning I could go to my computer and have a quick look at the latest images downloaded from the spacecraft,” says Professor Murray, “It was almost like having your own webcam keeping an eye on conditions at the other side of the solar system!”

Cassini’s cameras helped researchers study the structure and motion of Saturn’s atmosphere as well as the surface of many of the planet’s 62 moons. They also observed the properties of Saturn’s rings and their interaction with some of the moons, a particular research interest of Professor Murray’s.

He added: “We know the rings of Saturn are made of ice, but not the sort of ice we are used to. It’s more like fluffy ice, something between a hailstone and a snowball.

“If the ice is fluffy, the particles are more likely to coalesce rather than break up or bounce off each other as there is more surface area for the particles to stick.”

Valuable data

The probe, after fuel reserves dried up, plunged into the planet's atmosphere to destroy itself. The Cassini mission has provided some of the best in-depth data on Saturn to date. Scientists across the world have hailed it as one of the most successful space explorations ever.

The rich amount of data sent from the spacecraft, will allow Professor Murray and his team to analyse information for years to come, including objects in its rings, one of them nicknamed Peggy after his mother in law.

“Peggy is such an interesting object, and for people who work on the mission and even with the public - it's captured their imagination. It's like an old friend to us, and so as you say goodbye you'd like to get a picture. Peggy will be one of the last targets for Cassini,” says Professor Murray.

He added: “Cassini has answered questions, but like any good mission should, it has produced so many more questions that need to be answered.”

More information

  • Learn more about the Cassini mission here
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