Kansas University physics professor Thomas Cravens breathed a sigh of relief early Thursday morning after NASA's Cassini-Huygens spacecraft successfully made it into Saturn's orbit.
"There's been a lot of excitement and relief," said Cravens, who Thursday afternoon was at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Excitement because everything worked and relief because we knew that, indeed, there would be a mission."
Cassini journeyed 2.2 billion miles in the past seven years to study Saturn's atmosphere, magnetic field and weather patterns. It soared through Saturn's rings late Wednesday night and settled into the planet's orbit. By dawn Thursday, it was transmitting data, including pictures of Saturn's rings, back to Earth.
For years, Cravens has been involved in the project working with Cassini's Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer, which figures out what a particle is made of by looking at its mass. By Thursday afternoon, he was getting his first glimpse at returned data.
"It does look like we have some ions made out of water," he said. "We need to verify it, but it does look to be there."
Dozens of scientists, including Craven and people with Lawrence-based Fundamental Technologies LLC, have been involved with the Cassini spacecraft, a joint venture between NASA and the European Space Agency.
In Lawrence, Jerry Manweiler, manager for the Fundamental Technologies, received reports that everything was working well thus far. He has been waiting for data from Thomas Armstrong, vice president of development for Fundamental Technologies, who also is in Pasadena.
A $3.3 billion spacecraft, Cassini has several instruments on it collecting data. Manweiler said he and Armstrong were working with Cassini's Magnetospheric Imaging Instrument, or MIMI.
MIMI has three sensors that will examine and measure the particles at Saturn and provide images of the planet's magnetosphere. The magnetosphere is the region around an object where the influence of the object's magnetic field can be felt.
Fundamental Technologies will process data collected from MIMI and prepare it for archival at the planetary data system, Manweiler said.
Manweiler began working on the project as a graduate student at KU with Armstrong. After Manweiler received his doctorate from KU, he and Armstrong created Fundamental Technologies, which also is involved in other fields like criminal justice and health, and took the Cassini data and research with them.
Manweiler also serves as an adjunct lecturer for the physics department at KU while Armstrong is an emeritus professor for KU's physics department.
Manweiler said working on the project had been a tremendous privilege.
"This has been a wonderful opportunity," he said.
Cassini eventually will move closer Saturn's largest moon, Titan, which Craven said would be his main focus of his project.
"For now, we'll look at this data for a few weeks. Then we'll start thinking about Titan," Craven said. "But the craft does work and there's work to do and that's the big news for now."