Final countdown to Cassini liftoff is on
October 12, 1997
Web posted at: 10:22 a.m. EDT (1422 GMT)
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (CNN) -- The final countdown for the
launch of the Cassini space probe was under way Sunday after
legal efforts to stop the controversial mission failed.
The $3.4 billion Cassini project marks the end of an era in exploration: It is
the last of the so-called grand voyagers of the solar system.
Funding for space projects, always tight, may grow even more
scarce. "In today's environment," said Cassini project
manager Richard Spehalski, "I think we're looking at the end
of the first phase of interplanetary exploration of this
A L S O :
Toxic rocket fuel, not plutonium, has meteorologists worried
If all goes well and the weather cooperates, Cassini, sitting
atop a Titan-4 rocket, will be launched into space from Cape
Canaveral on Monday at 4:55 a.m. EDT. Seven years later, in
2004, the spacecraft will finally arrive at Saturn and begin
four years of exploring the Saturnian system.
When it first arrives, the small Huygens probe, built by the
European Space Agency, will parachute into the atmosphere of
Titan, one of Saturn's moons. Humans have never before
attempted to land an object on so distant a world.
"I'd like to see if we've got lakes and waterfalls of ethane
or other organics. Maybe even icebergs," Spehalski said.
"Who can tell?"
Controversy overshadows launch
The Hawaii County Green Party and the Florida Coalition for
Peace and Justice had asked the U.S. District Court to stop
the launch. Although plutonium has been used in previous
space missions, the groups said the Cassini project's 72
pounds of plutonium present an unprecedented risk.
But U.S. Judge David Ezra said the economic and scientific
harm that NASA and other defendants in the case would suffer
if the launch were delayed outweighed the potential harm
asserted by the two groups.
The spacecraft also has ignited anti-nuclear protests that
likely will carry on right through its launch.
The project's scientists say the scientific benefits of
Cassini's four-year tour of Saturn outweigh the risks of its
plutonium power source.
As a safety measure, the nuclear material on Cassini is in a
ceramic form. And the devices have been extensively tested.
"The odds of a problem have been reduced enough, compared to
other problems we accept in everyday life, that the benefits
of the mission justify it going ahead," said John Logsdon of
the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
Meanwhile, NASA would rather be talking about the science of
the mission than the controversy. The space agency says
Cassini carries the best instruments of any probe ever sent
to another planet. It is capable of taking soil samples and
analyzing them, sending out imaging radar signals to help
create pictures of planet surfaces, and mapping a planet's
One of Cassini's primary targets for study is Saturn's moon,
Titan. Planetary scientists believe Titan contains the same
chemical compounds that preceded life on this planet. If so,
they say, Titan may provide answers to fundamental questions
about how life began on Earth.
Correspondent John Zarrella
contributed to this report.
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