The Cassini-Huygens mission is one of the most ambitious space research projects ever undertaken. Launched on 15 October 1997, the American-European planetary probe journeyed through space for nearly seven years enroute to Saturn, the second-largest planet of the Solar System. The probe reached the Ringed Planet in the middle of 2004 — a journey of 3500 million kilometres. Before Cassini-Huygens' arrival, three American space probes had passed Saturn: Pioneer 11, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. Cassini-Huygens will investigate the Saturnian system for four years.
The mission consists of two parts: the space probe Cassini and the European lander Huygens. The space probe will orbit Saturn 76 times in the course of its mission, investigating the ring system, Saturn's magnetosphere and its 47 known moons. This is much more than could ever be accommplished with past space probes and telescopic observations. The Huygens lander separated from Cassini on 25 December 2004 and entered the atmosphere of Titan on 14 January 2005. Its three-hour mission measured the atmosphere of Saturn's largest satellite during descent and upon successful landing, a drill probe examined the surface of the moon. In mid-2008 the mission was extended for the first time and renamed "Cassini Equinox Mission"of Saturn as it began near Saturn's equinox, when the Sun was directly overhead at Saturn's equator and ring plane. After that, the mission called "Mission Solstice" was extended until 2017.
Researchers expect that the mission will answer fundamental questions about the emergence and development of the planets as well as of the Solar System itself. Saturn, as seen from the Sun, is the sixth planet and very far away from it. Due to this large distance from our local star, Saturn's gaseous and liquid parts cannot evaporate and have mostly remained unchanged since their formation. This provides researchers with a pristine scientific "treasure chest" dating from the very start of our Solar System.
Two hundred and sixty scientists from 17 European countries and the USA work on the mission. The Cassini orbiter was developed and built in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) of NASA in Pasadena, USA. The European Space Agency (ESA) built the Huygens probe. Huygens mission control was based at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt.
The mission was named after both the Italian-French astronomer and Saturn researcher, Giovanni Domenico Cassini (1625-1712) and the discoverer of Saturn's moon Titan, Dutch natural scientist Christiaan Huygens (1629 - 1695).
Cassini Huygens was launched on board a Titan/4b-Centaur rocket from Cape Canaveral, USA. The project is managed by the space organisations of the USA (NASA) and Europe (ESA).