Early in the morning of October 15, 1997, standing in the dark on the edge of an alligator-infested inlet near Cape Canaveral, Fla., I watched with thousands of others as a tiny flame appeared beneath a rocket illuminated by floodlights on a launchpad several miles away. Only the booster's fiery tail was visible as the rocket ascended through a cumulus cloud and then arced over the ocean, headed for space. The most sophisticated robotic spacecraft ever built, the Cassini orbiter and the attached Huygens probe, were poised atop the launch vehicle, and seven years of interplanetary voyaging lay ahead. I had begun my involvement in the planning of this mission as a graduate student, and I would have to wait until the middle of my scientific career to see its culmination: the first prolonged exploration of the Saturnian system.
This July the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft is expected to go into orbit around the solar system's second-largest planet. Researchers have been eagerly awaiting this day ever since the flyby missions--Pioneer 11 and Voyagers 1 and 2--piqued their interest in Saturn more than 20 years ago. Although the planet is smaller than Jupiter and its surface is much less dramatic in appearance, Saturn may hold vital clues to the long-term evolution of all the gas-giant planets. Saturn's retinue of moons includes 30 icy satellites and one planet-size body, Titan, which has a dense atmosphere that fascinates scientists because it could reveal how life arose on Earth. Researchers also wish to discover how Saturn's rings formed and how the planet's powerful magnetic field affects the icy moons and the upper atmosphere of Titan.
This article was originally published with the title Saturn at Last!.