Saturn probe hits snag at bad time


The Cassini orbiter, shown here in an artist’s conception, has gone into safe mode of operation in advance of a flyby of Titan.

The Cassini orbiter has gone into a precautionary standby mode, a week in advance of a planned flyby of the Saturnian moon Titan, NASA reported today.

Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said they don’t expect Cassini to be back to normal in time for the Nov. 11 flyby, which was to focus on infrared mapping of the mysterious world’s smoggy atmosphere. Scientists expected the bus-sized probe’s camera to capture images of two prominent regions on Titan’s surface, known as Shangri-La and Adiri.

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NASA said Cassini entered safe mode at around 7 p.m. ET on Tuesday, curtailing the flow of science data and sending back only data about engineering and spacecraft health. Cassini is programmed to put itself in safe mode anytime it encounters a condition on the spacecraft that requires action from the folks at JPL’s Mission Control in Pasadena, Calif.

“The spacecraft responded exactly as it should have, and I fully expect that we will get Cassini back up and running with no problems,” Cassini program manager Bob Mitchell said in today’s mission status report. “Over the more than six years we have been at Saturn, this is only the second safing event. So considering the complexity of demands we have made on Cassini, the spacecraft has performed exceptionally well for us.”

Since its launch in 1997, Cassini has put itself into safe mode a total of six times, NASA said.

The glitch was a downer for folks celebrating Deep Impact/EPOXI probe’s successful flyby past Comet Hartley 2 earlier today. “How I dread the words ‘status report’ from JPL,” the Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla tweeted. But the status report added a bit of positive spin as well: “Cassini has 53 more Titan flybys planned in its extended mission, which lasts until 2017.”

**More about Cassini:**

* This is how Saturn’s rings roll * Slideshow: Cassini’s greatest hits * Titan may foreshadow Earth’s desert future * Visit Cassini at JPL | Cassini imaging team

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