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Special Section: The Cassini Mission

Final countdown to Cassini liftoff is on

Cassini 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 scale."

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 magnetic fields.

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.

Special Section: The Cassini Mission

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