The astronomers around the world will be observing Saturn and its moon "Titan" as NASA's Cassini spacecraft plunges to the atmosphere of the sixth solar planet on September 15 after completing 20 years of its exploration.
"The whole time Cassini is descending, we'll be on the ground, taking data and learning about conditions on Saturn," Don Jennings, a senior scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland said.
NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) and the W.M Keck Observatory, the world's largest optical and infrared telescope in Maunakea in Hawaii provides critical information for the NASA. Meanwhile, other U.S. and international telescopes will provide supportive information to astronauts around the globe for complementary and extended missions.
The Keck Observatory captures high-resolution images of the atmospheric weather patterns of Titan, while the IRTF helps to determine the direction of Titan's winds.
"IRTF and other facilities have provided direct support to the Cassini–Huygens mission and made it possible to link that data to decades' worth of earlier and ongoing ground-based studies.Through its daytime observing capabilities, IRTF is able to provide almost year-round monitoring of planets in support of NASA missions " said John Rayner, director IRTF.
European Space Agency's Huygens probe mission and Cassini exploration were evolved based on the observations of the Saturn's system made by earthly telescopes. The Huygens probe and Cassini missions were launched on October 15, 1997, for ground observation of Titan, the giant planet's largest moon and for exploring Saturn's system.
The saucer shaped Huygens probe landed on the Titan's surface on January 14, 2015, after detaching from the Cassini on December 25, 2004. The probe gave details of Saturn's moon's atmosphere while landing. This study gave crucial information about thick atmosphere and presence of water in the moon.
European Space Agency had employed eight observatories for researches during and after the Huygens probe mission. The Voyager space craft which visited the Titan has also provided some information.
Goddard's Theodor (Ted) Kostiuk, who led IRTF observations, said that the ground-based observation had the crucial role as the only way to determine the direction of the Titan's wind which would affect Huygen's decadence.
The 3.0m wide IRTF which started functioning in 1979, is still the most important instrument for studies related to Saturn. A high-resolution infrared instrument called "iSHELL", for studies on planetary atmosphere has been recently reinforced in the facility as the aftermath of a massive storm in the giant planet's Atmosphere.
Cassini's team has been using Keck Observatory to take near-infrared spectroscopic data of the Saturn's equator while Cassini was exploring Saturn's rings. These ground observatories along with the data from the Cassini will be a prime source for Saturn studies in future.