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The background and time line of the Cassini-Huygens mission

The Cassini-Huygens mission is named after Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) – a Dutch scientist who discovered Saturn’s rings and, in 1655, Titan – and Italian Jean-Dominique Cassini (1625-1712), who discovered the Saturnian satellites Iapetus, Rhea, Tethys and Dione. In 1675, he discovered what is known today as the «Cassini Division,» the narrow gap separating Saturn’s rings.   Cassini-Huygens is a joint NASA/ESA/ASI mission. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will orbit Saturn for four years, making an extensive survey of the ringed planet and its moons. Launched on October 15, 1997, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft – the largest interplanetary spacecraft ever built – represents the most effective cooperation ever to have taken place between NASA and the ESA. The spacecraft was constructed in its entirety by the Americans, while the Huygens probe was constructed by European scientists. However, before the 1997 launch, relations between the agencies hung in a precarious balance as the American government threatened to cut back funding. «The then-president of the ESA,» relates Kousteni, «made it clear to the Americans that if they withdrew their participation, it would effectively end all future cooperation between the two agencies. In the end, the government was forced to cooperate.»   The Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn in July 2004, while the Huygens probe landed on Titan on January 14, 2005. Titan is one of the most mysterious objects in our solar system. It is the second-largest moon and the only one with a thick, methane-rich, nitrogen atmosphere, which experts think resembles that of a very young Earth. The first data to have been received from the mission will be presented at a conference organized by the Institute of Research and Technology of Crete, from May 30 to June 30, the first major event to be organized by Greece as a member of the ESA. More details on the Cassini-Huygens mission and news updates are available at www.esa.int.