WASHINGTON, March 22, 2012 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum has bestowed its highest group honor, the Trophy for Current Achievement, on NASA's Cassini mission to Saturn. The annual award recognizes outstanding achievements in the fields of aerospace science and technology.
The trophy was presented Wednesday during an evening ceremony at the museum in Washington. Established in 1985, the award has been presented to seven NASA planetary mission teams.
"This joint mission has produced an unprecedented science return," said William Knopf, Cassini program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Missions like Cassini pave the way for future robotic and human exploration throughout our solar system and beyond."
Launched in 1997, the Cassini spacecraft entered Saturn's orbit in June 2004 with the European Space Agency's (ESA) Huygens probe bolted to its side. In December 2004, the spacecraft successfully released Huygens, which entered the atmosphere of Saturn's largest moon Titan. Cassini completed its prime mission in 2008 and has been extended twice. It is now in its so-called solstice mission, which will enable scientists to observe seasonal changes in Saturn and its moons during the planet's northern summer solstice. The mission will last through September 2017.
"We look forward to sailing around the Saturn system for several more years to see how our views of the planet and its magnificent moons change as we get into northern summer solstice," said Robert Mitchell, the Cassini program manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., who accepted the award on behalf of the team.
The Cassini spacecraft carries 12 science instruments and investigations, with an additional six aboard Huygens. Cassini mission highlights to date include the discovery of four new moons and two new rings around Saturn. Cassini observed spraying water vapor and icy particle jets from the moon Enceladus. In Saturn's northern hemisphere, the spacecraft watched the evolution of a monster storm, a sign of seasonal change from northern winter into northern spring.
Cassini and Huygens also revealed new characteristics about Titan, the only body in the solar system other than Earth with stable liquid on its surface.
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA and the Italian Space Agency. JPL manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL.