Visit to a Large Planet

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A thousand rings round Saturn, icy moons and lakes of liquid nitrogen

"To think that no other person from Earth has ever seen Saturn and its rings so close!" Wilma said. "I wonder what Titan will be like?" "Well," Buck replied, "it won't be long now."

Last week, while earthlings nearly a billion miles away marveled as they monitored its progress, an all-seeing but unmanned spacecraft no larger than a compact car completed the final and most spectacular phase of an epochal journey. Beating Buck Rogers and the faithful Wilma, sci-fi heroes of the pre-Star Trek generation, by five centuries, Voyager 1 brushed past the ringed planet Saturn, second largest member of the sun's family, and provided the best images yet of that strange and wondrous world, a far-off realm in the solar system never before glimpsed with such glittering clarity. Said one scientist watching the incoming tide of images: "We have learned more about the Saturn system in the past week than in the entire span of recorded history."

Voyager 1's performance was the equal of the marvels it found. Commanded only by its own computers, the robot soared past the mysterious moon Titan, approaching to within 4,000 km (2,500 miles) of its shrouded surface. Gathering ever more speed under the tug of Saturnian gravity, it plunged downward toward the outer edge of Saturn's rings, swirling bits of cosmic debris. Reaching a peak velocity of 91,000 km (56,600 miles) per hour, Voyager skirted within 124,240 km (77,200 miles) of the planet's banded cloud tops for its nearest approach to Saturn.

All the while its instruments and television cameras blinked away furiously, almost as if they had a life of their own. So large did Saturn loom in the robot's probing electronic eyes that they could capture only small swatches of the planet's stormy atmosphere. The spacecraft executed its maneuvers with astonishing precision — near the climax of its long journey it was only 19 km (12 miles) off course. Finally, Voyager climbed upward, once again crossing just outside Saturn's rings. Casting backward glances with its cameras and instruments, it soared above the ecliptic — the plane formed by the paths of planets orbiting the sun — and headed out of the solar system to wander aimlessly among the stars.

Before last week's culmination of Voyager's odyssey, a two-day close encounter of the most extraordinary kind, Saturn was relatively unknown. It is a gigantic swirling gaseous ball, mostly hydrogen and helium, that could encompass 815 earths, but even with the best telescopes and the most settled atmospheric conditions, it had never been seen as much more than a fuzzy yellow ringed sphere. Now, in a flash of binary bits across space, it had become a clearly recognizable place under the sun, with its own wonders, surprises and mysteries.

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