April 4, 2008

Students to Take Command of Saturn Probe

NASA will
turn control of the Cassini spacecraft at Saturn over to students for a day in
a contest aimed at boosting interest in science among today's youth.

An essay
contest for students in grades 5 through 12 will determine which of three
science targets Cassini will photograph on June 10, the space agency announced
late Thursday. Cassini scientists regularly debate exactly which images of Saturn's
many moons and rings
will produce the most science results, a task they are
turning over to elementary and high school students for the "Cassini Scientist-for-a-Day"
competition, NASA officials said.

"It's a really fun way
for kids to learn about Saturn and what the mission is doing," said Rachel
Zimmerman-Brachman, an education and public outreach specialist with NASA's Jet
Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., in a statement. "Students have
to do their own research to write their essay. That way, they learn how to ask
questions about the solar system and what we still need to understand.

On June 10, Cassini will be
about 493,000 miles (793,000 km) away from Saturn and zooming toward the planet
at about 13,400 mph (22,565 kph).

That gives the spacecraft
about 55 minutes to turn its camera eyes toward any target, though the Cassini
science team narrowed the list of candidates to the Saturnian moons of Rhea,
Enceladus and a section of the planet's rings that contains the planet's tiny
satellite Pan.

In order to select a target,
students must write a 500-word essay on exactly what image they want Cassini to
take and discuss its scientific importance.

Cassini recently flew past
the moon Enceladus, an icy satellite that spews
plumes of water
ice from fissures at its south pole. Rhea is Saturn's
second largest moon and may sport its own rings just
like its planetary parent, Cassini researchers have said.

Pan is a tiny moon, about
12 miles (20 km) from pole to pole, and orbits Saturn inside a gap in the
planet's trademark rings. Past Cassini studies have shown
large bulges
along the small satellite's equator.

A panel of Cassini mission
scientists, planners and JPL education officials will judge the entries and
select three winners; one each from elementary, middle and high school age

For more information and a
list of NASA contest rules, click