Educator Features

Saturn, Cassini & the Classroom Connection
09.04.03
Cassini orbiting Saturn
This artist's rendition shows the Cassini spacecraft approaching the planet Saturn and its magnificent rings
The Planet - Saturn

With its stunning rings and dozen of moons, Saturn is an intriguing planet for many reasons. Barely smaller than Jupiter, it formed four billion years ago, and it is made mainly of gas. It is also the only known planet that is less dense than water, meaning that if it could be placed inside an imaginary gigantic bathtub it would float. Saturn has a huge magnetosphere and a stormy atmosphere, with winds clocked at 1,800 kilometers (1,118 miles) per hour near its equator.

Of the 31 known moons orbiting Saturn, Titan is the largest. Bigger than the planet Mercury and our own moon, Titan is of particular interest to scientists because it is the only moon in the solar system with its own atmosphere.

But what sets Saturn apart from the rest of the planets in the solar system are its picturesque rings. Made up by billions of ice and rock particles of all sizes - from small debris to boulders as big as houses - these rings orbit Saturn at varying speeds. There are hundreds of these rings, believed to be pieces of shattered comets, asteroids or moons that broke apart before they reached the planet. The rings are so big that they would fill most of the distance between Earth and the Moon.

For centuries, Saturn and its rings puzzled observers, in particular, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei. The first to use a telescope to explore the wonders of the heavens, Galileo couldn't understand why Saturn looked different in the night sky at varying times - a phenomenon that we now know is caused by the shifting of our view of the ring plane. Because of this, when the rings face Earth edge-on they are virtually invisible. They seem to reappear months later when our angle of view changes. Despite major advances in lens technology since Galileo's time, many questions still need to be answered through exploration of Saturn's rings.

Cassini-Huygens

Launched from Kennedy Space Center on Oct. 15, 1997, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft will reach the Saturnian region in July 2004. The mission is composed of two elements: The Cassini orbiter that will orbit Saturn and its moons for four years, and the Huygens probe that will dive into the murky atmosphere of Titan and land on its surface. The sophisticated instruments onboard these spacecraft will provide scientists with vital data to help understand this mysterious, vast region.

Education

In addition to providing fascinating opportunities for scientific discovery and exploration, the Cassini-Huygens mission also offers an extensive formal education program for grades K-12. This program is aimed at encouraging students of all ages to participate in learning about mathematics, science and technology, in the context of a fascinating deep space mission.

Picture of a chalkboard
The Cassini-Huygens Education Program is targeted toward students in grades K-12
The Cassini-Huygens Education program incorporates materials geared toward each grade level in a developmentally appropriate way to accommodate unique levels of learning - from basic awareness, to qualitative and analytical, to in-depth investigative thinking. The materials are also fully aligned with National Education Standards set forth in mathematics, technology and science, as well as government initiatives to encourage science in schools using the many NASA space programs as a topical model.

One of the challenges in designing a program like the Cassini Education Program is to sustain interest in the science of Cassini, during and after the life of the mission. Because the mission contains so many complex elements of mathematics, engineering, technology, physics and other sciences, classrooms all over the country should benefit from the many facets of science education set forth in this program - now and into the future.

The Education program is divided into grade levels to ensure the most appropriate materials are presented. The K-4 Program focuses on basic awareness, using reading and writing to encourage interest in scientific discovery. The 5-8 Program focuses on interdisciplinary learning; namely, further engagement into science, once reading and writing skills become more advanced. Finally, the 9-12 Program focuses on a more in-depth investigation of the scientific methods outlined in the Cassini-Huygens mission, encouraging elements of engineering, physics, chemistry and astronomy.

As it makes its long journey to Saturn, the Cassini-Huygens mission already provides a colorful palette of education materials to delight and stimulate the mind at all grade levels. Upon reaching its destination, the mission will add even more facets to educate students of all ages about interplanetary exploration, Saturn, its many moons, and the cumulative nature of science as a whole.

The Cassini mission to Saturn will result in a wealth of new knowledge.

By immersing students in the excitement of Saturn and the Cassini mission, the Education program wishes to build a generation of citizens who truly appreciates the wonders of interplanetary space.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a joint effort of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Cassini-Huygens mission is managed for NASA by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Cassini-Huygens - Mission to Saturn & Titan Education Program
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Article credited to Cassini-Huygens, Mission to Saturn & Titan Web site