Looking like an artist's rendition, an enhanced color mosaic taken by Cassini as it drifted through Saturn's shadow clearly shows all of the giant planet's rings.  (Source: NASA, Jet Propulsion Laboratory)
A trusty space probe ends its primary mission, begins secondary.

NASA's Cassini space probe is just one of the fantastically durable craft roaming our solar system at the moment. At present, all eyes are fixed on Mars and deservingly so. The Phoenix Mars Lander has turned up some incredible finds on the small red planet. But currently the amount of data returned by the lander pales in comparison to what the Cassini probe has sent back about Saturn, its rings and its moons.

Cassini launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on 15 October, 1997. It took nearly seven years to reach Saturn, but did so flawlessly on 30 June, 2004. Since that day, it has been ceaselessly taking measurements, images and other data and sending them back to Earth for scientists to analyze.

The probe not only answered many questions for planetary and astronomical scientists, but spurred them to ask even more. After Cassini's flawless performance over the last four years of its primary mission, NASA decided to extend its livelihood for at least an additional two years.

The new mission will further study two of Saturn's moons, Titan and Enceladus, as well as gather more data on the planet's climate cycle and magnetosphere. It will also have to the chance to see something from a unique perspective that Earth-based telescopes cannot – the planet's equinox in August of 2009 will allow sunlight to pass directly through the plane of the intricate ring structures.

Cassini's secondary mission, dubbed Cassini Equinox Mission, will last until September of 2010. Another two years of outstanding service could even see a third mission, dedicated to Titan and Enceladus.

Today marks the four year anniversary of Cassini's arrival to Saturn and is the last day of its primary mission in the system. Tomorrow it embarks on a new mission which will no doubt return a wealth of valuable data, intriguing images and undiscovered secrets.

"Nowadays, security guys break the Mac every single day. Every single day, they come out with a total exploit, your machine can be taken over totally. I dare anybody to do that once a month on the Windows machine." -- Bill Gates
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