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Phoenix Lands, Shuttle Docks, Cassini Silently Works Away

Todd J. Barber, Cassini lead propulsion engineer

With one month remaining in Cassini's prime mission, the spacecraft and flight team close out a frenetic but productive month of May. Even with three canceled propulsive maneuvers this month (OTM-154, OTM-157, and OTM-158), engineering and science teams have been busy with a myriad of events. Radio science occultations began the month, and other early news from May included the discovery of Saturnian atmospheric waves. Painstaking ground-based observations for decades, coupled with Cassini's infrared perspective, finally captured this phenomenon which only occurs every fifteen years or so. Despite its novelty, such features actually have been observed in the atmospheres of Earth and Jupiter as well. Our infrared and ultraviolet instruments studied Saturn's north polar regions, too, even producing an auroral movie!

May was dominated by two northern polar passes of Titan, the last two flybys of Saturn's largest moon during the prime mission. These flybys were similar and went off without a hitch, including radar imagery of the bright continent-like feature named "Xanadu," inbound radar altimetry, stereo imagery for our eager 3D-glasses wearers on Earth, and so much more. Even with nearly four dozen Titan flybys behind us, this perplexing satellite continues to dole out its secrets sparingly. However, with the completion of the final Titan flyby until the extended mission, we can only reflect on our vastly greater understanding of this superstar of the solar system vs. our knowledge four years ago.

As June is almost here in 2008, what a wonderful week it has been for NASA in general! Even with Phoenix's awesome soft landing in the Martian Arctic and yet another successful space shuttle launch and space station docking, Cassini has been silently working away in the shadows of the limelight. With a solar system as diverse and mysterious as ours, there is plenty of planetary science intrigue for all of us. Even during a busy month with back-to-back Titan flybys, we pause with the nation to reflect on these glorious successes within our parent agency. To be even a small part of this great enterprise is the highlight of my life.