The Cassini spacecraft's mission at Saturn has been extended by two years, NASA announced on Tuesday, allowing the plucky probe to continue scouting the planet and its exotic medley of moons.
Launched in October 1997, the nuclear-powered Cassini spacecraft spent seven years journeying to Saturn and has orbited the ringed planet since June 2004. The mission's end was originally set for July 2008.
"This extension is not only exciting for the science community, but for the world to continue to share in unlocking Saturn's secrets," said Jim Green, director for NASA's Planetary Science Division in Washington.
"New discoveries are the hallmarks of its success, along with the breathtaking images beamed back to Earth that are simply mesmerizing," Green added.
Titan, Saturn's orange-tinged moon that is now thought to harbor a hidden ocean, will receive 26 more close encounters, while ice-spewing Enceladus — also suspected of hiding liquid water — is slated for seven more visits.
Cassini's latest flyby of Enceladus took the spacecraft within 32 miles (52 kilometers) of the moon's surface, but an upcoming visit is expected to outdo that encounter at a mere 15 miles (24 kilometers) from its crust.
Scientists think Titan and Enceladus may help construct a picture of what Earth was like before life appeared here, as both moons have been shown to harbor precursors of life.
"When we designed the original tour, we really did not know what we would find, especially at Enceladus and Titan," said Dennis Matson, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "This extended tour is responding to these new discoveries and giving us a chance to look for more."
In addition to one flyby a piece for the moons Dione, Rhea and Helene, the extension also includes more planned peeks at Saturn, its mysterious rings and the gas giant's magnetosphere.
Built to last
Aside from a few instrument glitches, mission managers said the probe is in good shape.
"The spacecraft is performing exceptionally well and the team is highly motivated, so we're excited at the prospect of another two years," said Bob Mitchell, Cassini program manager at JPL.
If mission managers decide to extend Cassini's journey yet again in 2010, the craft should have enough propellant to handle a third mission phase.
Since arriving at Saturn, Cassini has beamed back nearly 140,000 images during 62 revolutions around the planet and more than 50 flybys of its moons.
Although operated by NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency, NASA rounded up the $160 million to fund the extension that will nearly double Cassini's orbits around Saturn as well as moon flybys.
The space agencies have spent a collective $3.27 billion designing, launching and operating the spacecraft, which sent the Huygens probe to Saturn's moon Titan in early 2004. NASA contributed the lion's share of the Cassini-Huygens program's cost, with $2.6 billion.